Independent Theatre's Far From The Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd - Independent Theatre Inc. Photography by David Wilson.
Far From the Madding Crowd – Independent Theatre Inc. Photography by David Wilson.

Each person who walks into the auditorium of The Odeon Theatre and lays eyes on the stage is immediately struck at just how big it is. The implication is the audience is about to witness theatre of epic proportions.

For all its largesse Thomas Hardy has written what is essentially a triangular love tryst within the challenging conditions of a rural setting. What makes this 1874 storyline so special is the central character – an intelligent, emotional, independently minded, strong-willed woman running the family farm – an Alpha work in the canon of feminist literature.

Far From The Madding Crowd is considered so good it’s been adapted to film, radio, a musical, a ballet, an opera and even a comic strip serial (Tamara Drewe) but, despite many attempts for the past 139 years (including one co-written by Hardy himself in 1882) it has never been successfully adapted to the stage. Unfortunately, Mark Healy’s current adaptation is not the breakthrough the theatre world was looking for.

At around 3 hours (including interval) it’s just way too long – perhaps cut to a crisp 90 minute running time. The language is dated and the plot is written out in an obvious manner. However, Independent Theatre has put a lot of effort into this production and it shows.

The set is appropriately Arcadian, strongly constructed with loads of naked pine by David Roach, Adrian Shirley, Chris Gilbert and Malcolm Corkhill. It is high, wide and deep and Rob Croser’s direction develops maximum use of the large space so that it’s like watching tennis in slow motion at times.

Matthew Marciniak’s lighting design and operation punctuates the drama effectively and his work with the backdrop augments the deep sense of open space while adding a sense of warmth to the drama at appropriate moments.

Of the 14 actors in the 22 roles, Shedrick Yarkpai as Gabriel Oak delivers a strong workman-like performance for the strong workman-like role. Alicia Zorkovic, in the lead role of Bathsheba Everdene, plays the part with aplomb and delivers the changing emotions of the drama with professional believability. Charles Mayer as William Boldwood gives the killer performance of the night. Taking his role, and its foibles, from the heights of Victorian dignity to the gutter of emotional collapse. He is a joy to watch.

From the moment the house lights go down cast member William Jarman, as Joseph Poorgrass, sets the tone playing violin in an unmistakably English timbre of the period. Jarman’s faultless playing is a highly effective feature of the play, providing a wistfully colonial emotiveness in contrast to the British ‘stiff upper lip’ displayed on stage.

The costumes made by Julie Dillion, Sandra Davis, Susie Xu and Angela Doherty are equal to anything Edith Head might produce and impart a wonderful expression to the individual role and circumstance of each character. Independent Theatre is fortunate to have those 4 women on board.

While it's true you'll get a lot more from reading the novel, if you’re a fan of the original, universally popular and eternally relevant story, then this Australian premiere of English Touring Theatre’s production of Far From The Madding Crowd is well worth seeing.