Gone to Earth, Lyric Hammersmith, London

A hunt for human quarry
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The Independent Culture

Those who have heard of Mary Webb probably know her only as an object of ridicule: Stella Gibbons brilliantly satirised Webb's lurid rural novels in Cold Comfort Farm, in which passionate country girls are briskly told to wash their necks, read up on birth control, and get a good haircut. Those who have picked up a Webb novel (the best known is Precious Bane) may have decided, before reaching the end of its opening sentence, that Gibbons was right.

Those who have heard of Mary Webb probably know her only as an object of ridicule: Stella Gibbons brilliantly satirised Webb's lurid rural novels in Cold Comfort Farm, in which passionate country girls are briskly told to wash their necks, read up on birth control, and get a good haircut. Those who have picked up a Webb novel (the best known is Precious Bane) may have decided, before reaching the end of its opening sentence, that Gibbons was right.

The first line of Gone to Earth (1917) is a master class in the purple prose Gibbons so enjoyed ridiculing and reads, in part: "Small feckless clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky - shepherdless, futile, imponderable - and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains..." But anyone who reads just a bit further may change his idea of Webb as an author of overripe bodice-rippers. Webb's novels reflect her concerns about such currently topical issues as the exploitation of the rural poor, the rape of the land, the treatment of animals, and the role of women. Gone to Earth, written when Englishmen were being slaughtered like sheep in the fields of France, is fierce and tender, an anguished lament for suffering creatures of every species.

Gripping though the novel may be, however, one doubts the wisdom - indeed, the sanity - of Shared Experience in transferring to the stage a story that takes place largely outdoors, and in which nature is such an overpowering force that even Webb's use of the pathetic fallacy seems justified.

Yet, by altering the text (while nonetheless remaining true to its spirit), and creating, with only eight actors and a harpist, an atmosphere of pity and terror, Nancy Meckler's production is a triumphant success. The villagers and beaters, stamping and screaming, are effectively deployed, the music is eerie (the sweet yet eerie songs are by the playwright, Helen Edmundson), and the acting has tremendous conviction.

The most important role, of Hazel, the dangerously innocent teenager, is superbly filled by Natalia Tena, who never betrays the character with any display of femininity or even womanliness, dancing with the gusto and clumsiness of a child. (It's a shame, however, that the flame-haired Hazel of the book is here a brunette - we lose the splendour of her appearance and also its symbolism: when she is frightened by the laughter of the lecherous Squire Reddin, it sounds to her like "the pack that scents its prey".

Eager to leave a father who treats her like an unsatisfactory servant, Hazel consequently makes a disastrous marriage to a clergyman who offers her dresses and cakes - though the Edwardian profile and gentle charm of Simon Wilson would be plenty, one might think, for any healthy girl. It's a bit much to believe in Jay Villiers, however, as a vicious brute. His Reddin sounds sadly like John Cleese, and his sudden bursts of aggression and sarcasm also recall the squire of Fawlty Towers.

The set, a row of bars on three sides, is a rather laboured depiction of the fate that traps Hazel, and the spaces between bars, wide enough for the actors to walk through, vitiate the metaphor. But there are many other nice touches, such as Hazel's coffin-maker father tilting a lid with a cross carved on it, right after the minister meets Hazel, that suggests both her beau's derangement and his association with death. A fine adaptation; a thrilling play.



To 5 June; 8-12 June, Oxford Playhouse

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