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Gallery Players discovers a resourceful modern woman in a classic drama

PUBLISHED: 08:15 15 October 2017 | UPDATED: 08:15 15 October 2017

Leanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Ben Maytham as Sgt Francis Troy.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

Leanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Ben Maytham as Sgt Francis Troy.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

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Far From The Madding Crowd is a Victorian classic but as David Henshall finds out a new stage version written by Olivier-award-winng Jessica Swale reveals it to be a story filled with surprisingly contemporary characters

Leanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Dafydd Westacott as Gabriel Oak.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave BorthwickLeanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Dafydd Westacott as Gabriel Oak.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

You only have to hear the name Thomas Hardy to be carried instantly deep into a lovely, ancient, unchanging English countryside that glows and echoes in practically every thought he expresses. This is particularly true of Far From the Madding Crowd, one of his most popular novels.

It features one of literature’s most attractively named characters, Bathsheba Everdene, and the three men who vie for her affections. It was in the top 50 of the BBC’s Big Read, the search for the nation’s best-loved novel, has been filmed twice and now Gallery Players have found what they regard as the perfect theatre adaptation to stage at the Sir John Mills Theatre. It is a production in which music will play a particular part.

Independent and spirited, Bathsheba, arrives in Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on a large estate and her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman farmer Boldwood, the soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak.

The farmworkers in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave BorthwickThe farmworkers in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

Each of them, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions, complicates her life and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. Hardy’s novel of swift passion and slow courtship is imbued with his evocative descriptions of rural life and landscapes - and with unflinching honesty about sexual relationships.

In the novel he introduces the semi-fictional region of Wessex (although it has been more recently re-introduced by the royal creation of Prince Edward as the Earl of Wessex). Hardy took Wessex from ancient history, the designation of an extinct kingdom ruled over by Alfred the Great, and turned it into the partly real, partly dream-country that unifies his tales about South West England.

The title of the book he borrowed from Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, to suggest the rural remoteness of his story – “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” And “madding” is an old word meaning “frenzied” rather than maddening.

Leanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Thomas Haigh as William Boldwood.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave BorthwickLeanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Thomas Haigh as William Boldwood.in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

Helen Clarke is directing for Gallery Players and says she is amazed that a Victorian male novelist should have created such a proud, intelligent female character as Bathsheba – a woman who is determined to live an independent life on her own terms.

“It is extraordinary that in 1874 he should put in her mouth a statement like, ‘It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs.’ Bathsheba is by no means a perfect romantic character. She is impulsive, at times selfish, but she always strives to be better – and that’s what makes her so compelling.”

There have been several stage adaptations of Far From The Madding Crowd, “but the one that stood out is the one we’re using by award-winning playwright Jessica Swale. Her version captures both the cyclical rhythms and traditions of rural life, and the often-painful emotions of people struggling to find their way in life. It contains humour and truth and the sort of people you might bump into today, which is incredibly powerful.”

Leanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Beatrice Carpenter as Fanny in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave BorthwickLeanne Wilcox as Bathsheba with Beatrice Carpenter as Fanny in Gallery Players production of Far From The Madding Crowd. Photo: Dave Borthwick

Inspired by the National Theatre’s great staging of War Horse, Helen Clarke approached local musician and composer Emily Bennett about including some original music in her production, “We were so fortunate she said yes and came on board. She has written some absolutely beautiful music that perfectly evokes the countryside, the weather and the rural year – and we have some wonderful actor musicians to embed it into the play.”

Leanne Wilcox has the iconic role of Bathsheba with Dafydd Westacott as Gabriel Oak, Ben Maytham as Sgt Francis Troy and Thomas Haigh as William Boldwood. Other members of the cast play multiple characters as well as weighing in with music on guitar, cello, viola, accordion, tambour, penny whistle and trumpet.

Stage designer Dave Borthwick has created some of the animals needed to bring the story to life in a rather different and special blend of melody, puppetry and physical theatre.

Far From The Madding Crowd is at the Sir John Mills Theatre October 17 -21.Tickets: 01473 211498 and www.easternangles.co.uk

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