WITH Hallowe’en just a day or so away, Thomas Hardy’s The Withered Arm could hardly be a more appropriate tale for a decidedly chilly autumn night.
Performed in the highly atmospheric surroundings of Ashton Barn, and to a large and appreciative audience, the story of a wronged woman, a young bride, a worsening affliction and the desperate search for a cure provided the perfect ingredients for an evening of superstition and gothic suspense. Written in 1888, Hardy’s short story was originally published with several others in the collection Wessex Tales and gives us a snapshot of Dorset life as it once was. It was adapted by Sue Worth with additional scenes by Tim Laycock, both of whom directed the proceedings with considerable style.
The large cast was headed by Emma Hill as the hardworking, “lorn” milkmaid Rhoda Brook with Amelia Chorley as Farmer Lodge’s beautiful new wife Gertrude. Both gave fine performances, the initial warmth and innocence of the latter being well matched by the former’s growing obsessive behaviour, above all with the state of her hands, a label of poverty if ever there was one.
They were ably supported by Dominic Nugent as her unnamed son, Martin Stephen as the pompous and, by and large, increasingly cold Farmer Lodge, (five years of marriage and six months of love) and Brian Caddy as Conjuror Trendle. I had always imagined this last character to be a rather more sinister figure, but Caddy injected considerable warmth into the role; the stillness of Gertrude’s and his first meeting, where he slowly and deliberately mixes the egg and water for her to see the face of her enemy, was very spooky though and one of the highlights of the evening.
The production was very much an ensemble piece however, and all the cast made the most of their characters – I particularly liked the moaning milkmaids – Devina Symes, Joy Parsons and Hetty Lindley – while Hilary Charlesworth’s gentle rendition of Sprig of Thyme was especially haunting.
Although the imaginative use of the space within the barn and the generally simple staging enabled the many scenes to flow fairly seamlessly, one or two of the shorter scenes lost their impact simply because they were so short. The longer episodes, when there was time for suspense and general uneasiness to develop, tended to be more effective in this respect. The second meeting between Gertrude and Conjuror Trendle for example, when she is told that she must lay her arm on the neck of a hanged man, was genuinely exciting, as witnessed by the gasp from the audience, who clearly didn’t know what to expect, while the first of the two scenes between Gertrude and Davies the hangman – excellently portrayed by Steve Chant – was a similarly tense affair. Sadly, however, I found the final moments of the play just a bit of an anti-climax. I have always understood that Gertrude was cured of her affliction; something that surely should have been a powerful coup de theatre was rather glossed over.
No gothic drama would be complete without its special effects to heighten the suspense and in The Withered Arm we certainly had our fair share. Whether by accident or design, the ever-present shadow of the hangman’s rope in the closing scenes was an imaginative touch, while the use of red tatter coats was a practical and highly effective solution for the burning hayricks. Best of all though was the use of what I can only describe as three-dimensional shadows for Rhoda’s nightmare, leading to the fateful grasping of Gertrude’s arm. Very clever.
Finally, one of the key factors in the play’s success was the music, arranged and part-composed by multi-talented Dorchester musician Alastair Simpson – I am informed that his Twitter profile describes him as librarian, organist, trombonist, hurdy-gurdy player, guitarist, tin whistler, conductor, composer, folk and choral singer, actor, bell-ringer, knitter and dog-walker! The use of a few well-chosen sound effects and some exquisite and very English-sounding live music to set the mood, to link the scenes and to enhance key moments was both memorable and effective.
The performance closed with light refreshments followed by country dancing in the barn with the band Tatterdemalion and the inimitable Angela Laycock as caller. What a great night out!
The Withered Arm, which is being performed again today and then again on 4th November in Briantspuddle, is the first in a series of Hardy Short Stories in Interesting Places which is being held in collaboration with Dorchester Arts. More details from www.hardyonline.org.