By Thomas Hardy, adapted by Mark Healy
Directed by Kate Saxon
ETT and Exeter Northcott
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Tuesday 11th November 2008
Oh, the perils of expectations! We had seen this same creative team do a wonderful production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman back in September 2006. I had also read this book and seen the film, plus another adaptation, so I clearly didn’t manage to reset my expectation meter to zero before the off. It’s a pity, as I would probably have found it more enjoyable, though not hugely, I suspect. The adaptation and production were pretty good, much higher than my rating for the performance, but there were problems above and beyond any I brought with me.
To begin with, the set was good, similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with a raised platform to the right, and a lower platform to the left. This had an area with removable covers which held water for washing, sheep dipping, etc. There was one large arch which spanned the stage diagonally and suggested a barn, and other poles and planks with tree trunks interspersed among them, so there was plenty of scope for the different locations, though not always enough clarity, I felt. For the fire scene and the saving of the hay ricks from the storm, the cast brought on ladders which could be inserted into holes in the stage to keep them upright as the actors clambered all over them, while sound and lighting effects suggested the rest. I found these bits very effective. There were also some chairs, tables and benches brought on as required, but mostly the action was pretty free-flowing, with actors in one scene moving amongst the actors in another scene quite effectively. Sheep were not present, either actual or fake, so the actors had to do a lot of miming, but again this worked well.
We may have felt less involved because we were too much to one side, but on the whole I think the main difficulties with this production were the lack of sparkle, and the casting of the main part. Bathsheba Everdene simply has to stand out in a crowd. It doesn’t always have to be down to looks, although some beauty is preferable, but her personality must command the stage. Ensemble acting is all very well, but this is one part that requires a kind of star quality, and tonight we just didn’t get that. I felt that this Bathsheba wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd of three, and that meant I couldn’t feel for her plight in being a guy magnet. The other actors did their best – Phil Cheadle as Gabriel Oak was the best for us – but the whole performance was generally dull. Also, the accents being used were no doubt very accurate, but I lost at least half of the dialogue because of it, and even Steve had difficulties following it all. There was little humour, which always helps things along, and some of the little dances they did to symbolise something or other left me cold. I suspect this adaptation could work better with stronger casting and perhaps a less cluttered set, but I also recognise that these kinds of stories, as well as being incredibly difficult to condense into a manageable length for the stage, are not my favourite type of tale. So, some good points, but overall a bit dull.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me