English Touring Theater – Recorded live at The Yvonne Arnaud Theater, Guilford 2020

by Alix Cohen . . .

An evocative staging of Thomas Hardy’s classic, this production of Far From the Madding Crowd retells the sweeping story on a relatively small stage with striking, minimal scenery and a modest size cast. It’s somewhat uneven, but has much going for it in depicting the essence of the tale.

Young, vain Bathsheba Everdene (Rebecca O’Mara) flirts with neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Phil Cheadle) who promptly, modestly asks for her hand. The speed with which this happens, even in a necessarily condensed narrative, is too great. She dismisses him, at the same time aiming higher and valuing independence at a time when women didn’t have choices.

Bathsheba  inherits her uncle’s estate in Casterbridge and moves. Gabriel loses his farm. Without knowing she’s in the vicinity, he comes looking for work just at the right moment to be of help to her. He’s hired as a shepherd and remains one even when the bailiff is fired for stealing. The mistress needs him but is proud and publicly demeaning.

As a lark, Bathsheba sends wealthy neighboring farmer Mr. Boldwood (Stephen Billington)  a teasing, unsigned valentine. He finds out she sent it. Otherwise emotionally closed off, the Squire is immediately crazed for want of her. Again, too fast and directed out of proportion. He proposes. She stalls. Meanwhile farm worker Fanny (Jennifer Bryden) is courted and seduced by Sergeant Troy (Adam Croasdale.) When she gets pregnant, she nudges him into marriage, but goes to the wrong church. He’s humiliated and spurns her without knowing about the baby.

Meeting Bathsheba by accident one evening, Troy works his handsome ways on the naïve young woman. They fall – she into love, he into lust and good living. She neglects the farm. Gabriel grits his teeth and takes over. Gossip abounds. Bathsheba doesn’t know about Fanny. Yet. She pays for Troy to get out of the service and they marry. It’s a disaster.

There’s a tragic death, an assumed suicide, a repeated proposal, resolution to settle, a murder. Bathsheba is perpetually confused about what she wants making life for the men around her miserable until…

Rebecca O’Mara’s Bathsheba makes an audience want to throttle her. As every aspect of the performance is consistent, one assumes this is directorial. That she’s selfish, doesn’t know her own mind, and is subject to mercurial emotion is palpable and a credit to the actress.  I prefer the singularly seductive aspect of Julie Christie’s film portrayal.

Phil Cheadle’s Gabriel is earnest to a fault, the strong silent man. He’s credible to the point where he must deny his feelings and continue to work in rejected proximity. Seeing just a bit of his turmoil would enhance the last part of this otherwise good, low key performance.

As Fanny, Jennifer Bryden is wonderful. We feel the enormity of giving herself to Troy, her abject love and commitment. Directorially, she’s not in enough distress when he pushes her away.

Adam Croasdell is splendid with Sergeant Troy’s seduction scenes and chilling in manipulation of Boldwood, but not believable with anger. (The Christmas party scene)

Stephen Billington’s Mr. Boldwood is the weak link. Where is his pride, his wound?

Director Kate Saxon ably uses the stage in collaboration with Lighting Designer Oliver Fenwick and Sound Designer Duncan Chave- a fire, for example feels real. We often zero in on only one area; quick fade to black between scenes keeps thing fluid. Interludes featuring the Sergeant and Fanny or Bathsheba are physically potent, especially the iconic sword demonstration.

Libby Watson’s minimal scenery- levels of rough, open, wood slat structures and trees provide enough, leaving the rest to imagination.  Subdued costumes are spot on. Composer Gary Yershon’s folk score (with occasional singing) creates an effective vertebra, conjuring rural England, shifting mood with authenticity Georgina Lamb choreographs almost balletic lovemaking and hearty, synchronized fieldwork with equally skillful hand. Bustle, even panic manifests within the limited space. Occasional mimed activity is sharp.

Far From the Madding Crowd

Stage Adaptation by Mark Healy

Directed by Kate Saxon

Designer- Libby Watson

Movement- Georgina Lamb

Composer- Gary Yershon

Sound Design –Duncan Chave

Lighting- Oliver Fenwick

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Thomas Gray

Broadway HD: https://www.broadwayhd.com/. 2 hrs. 22 min.