Like ancient Greece, Thomas Hardy's Wessex is a land filled with remorseless tragedy, where harrowing is not just an agricultural activity and hubris sits waiting in the corner sipping at a tankard of ale. From the moment his name was inscribed on the title page, the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge Michael Henchard, was set on a downward path, marching into despair alongside Tess Durbeyfield and Jude Fawley. This is the lot of Hardy's title characters.
In adapting for the stage, Philip Goulding has taken on the monumental challenge of trying to reconcile three conflicting factors: big book, small cast, two hours. He further handicaps himself in this marathon endeavour by renouncing the favoured device of literary adapters: narration. Unlike the recent production of Far From the Madding Crowd at Exeter, which abandoned the pretence of realism to have characters switch into narrative monologue and refer to themselves in the third person, Goulding has stuck with a firm policy of telling the tale through dialogue alone. This method of working strips away whole layers of the original work: gone is the landscape, both external and internal, and the mass of conflicting emotion contained within the characters is left to a few lines of dialogue, the odd facial expression and the audience's imagination. What one is left with is plot - reams and reams of the stuff, episode after episode rattling past like the lighted windows on a passing express train, swift glimpses of vital incidents flashing across the stage in a parade of death, deceit and despair. This reduces the tale to rural soap opera. It remains a gripping saga, but as a presentation of Hardy's work it does rather remove the creamy bit from the centre of his literary Cream Egg.
Now country accents are a dodgy area. All too often a good adaptation and fine performances can be drowned out by the over-lavish use of Drama School Standard Rustic, an "ooh-ar" mongrel hailing from somewhere between Shrewsbury and Land's End. It is pleasant to find that Forest Forge's production has a local man, Tim Treslove, with a genuine Wessex accent, in the lead role. It is a strong performance which invests Henchard with sympathy and strength of character when the Job-like misfortune and flamboyant temper could easily tempt an actor into a cheap mix of rancour and rage.
The story of Henchard's fall from the shining apogee of the Mayoralty to a pauper's death is littered with a cast of thousands, which means a lot of doubling up and quick changes for the remaining five actors in this production. Transformations are achieved swiftly with a new hat, a new accent and a quick trip round the flats. But it is strange that whilst the cast generally excel in their main parts, they slip into bucolic caricatures when they appear as the secondary characters. One minute refined and naturalistic, performers suddenly transform themselves into the howling yokels of a Jan Steen painting. It's almost as if, to prove their versatility, the cast want to show that they can do both "good acting" and "bad acting". The production shines through their ability to do the former; it is one of the few flaws that they do the latter extremely well too.
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