‘The Woodlanders’ weaves Hammerpuzzle’s unique style of accessible storytelling, with live music, song and an originally composed piano underscore.’
Last Friday evening we sat down at the Everyman theatre in Cheltenham to watch Hammerpuzzle’s production of The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. I was excited and slightly apprehensive about how it would be staged and acted, because I love the book. It is extremely dear to me and I have read it many times throughout my life. The first time I was only a young teenager and I was gripped by the tangled and tragic love stories. Later, I read it and the forest and woodlands became my favourite aspect of the book. My grandfather, uncle, father and husband are or were timber merchents and forestry workers, gamekeepers, living in the countryside surrounded by trees. My childhood was playing on piles of wood and sawdust, the smell of wood fires and taste of food cooked outside. So the environment of the book resonates deeply within me. The lost rural life that Hardy carefully preserved within the pages when the people of the wood were reliant on the trees to live, but also under the will of the landowner who can remove a house and way of life with barely a thought.
The leaves and branches, the shade and creak of the trees; Hardy has a magnificent sense of place within the text so that reader can experience the cool stillness found beneath an oak, the sound of the wind in a slender copse. I even argued that the wood was another and equally significant character in a university essay.
I have bored many people over the years, no doubt, quoting little lines from the book.
‘He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother..’ etc etc.
One of the people who would have heard all about the book is my friend Adam, so it was a funny twist of fate when he was cast as the hero of the text, Giles Winterbourne. I am very straight talking and direct so my response was, ‘You had better do it right, no pressure because…’
And the play was wonderful! So this is going to be a glowing review.
The staging, the acting, the songs; it all tied together seamlessly, capturing the essence of the book and characters. I loved the way the characters would narrate occasionally, allowing some of the lines of the book to be spoken as well as the dialogue. The colour scheme was very good, all shades of brown with the flash of a red apple. I would have liked some trees…there was one or two little trees but it needed trunks painted on the backdrop to evoke the forest, the shade. I thought the staircase and gateway were effective, as was the use of crates to evoke carriages and seating.
I thought all of the actors played their roles extremely well, often two very different roles but each actor made them distinct.
Tamsin Kennard adapted the novel and wrote all of the music for the play. It created the right atmosphere and linked scenes together. She also played two crowd pleasing roles as Grammer Oliver (and her promised skull) and Suke Damson (the ripe, luscious one with ALL her teeth).
Tim Wells played two fathers: Father South was paranoid and dying. In contrast George Melbury was full of life, worrying about Grace, worrying about her place in society. His anger with Felice, when he begs her to give up Fitzpiers, was incredibly moving.
Mrs. Charmond and Marty South are two contrasting characters yet Katy Sobey successfully played both roles. Her Felice was stately and loud, arrogant and precise: she seemed to have her affair with Fitzpiers out of idle boredom. In contrast Sobey imbued Marty with quiet, fierce passion. In my opinion, the last lines of the book are the best, an emotional peak after the slow buildup of tragic circumstances. Sobey performed it perfectly, filling the lines with the throb of Marty’s devotion and her final possession of Giles; the broken lament for a woodland man.
“Now, my own, own love,” she whispered, “you are mine, and on’y mine; for she has forgot ‘ee at last, although for her you died. But I—whenever I get up I’ll think of ‘ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ‘ee. Whenever I plant the young larches I’ll think that none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad, and whenever I turn the cider-wring, I’ll say none could do it like you. If ever I forget your name, let me forget home and Heaven!—But no, no, my love, I never can forget ‘ee; for you was a GOOD man, and did good things!”
Another actor who took on dual roles to great effect was Alex York. His cranky, disgruntled Creedle gave the play much needed lightness but it was his interpretation of Fitzpiers that was particularly nuanced. He wasn’t an evil man, rather, he was a curious and weak man. York’s chemistry with Grace allowed the reading of the novel that says she suits Fitzpiers in the end, that they are the right match because her education allows them to converse and share interests.
However Maisie Young, playing Grace Melbury, brought sweetness and light to Grace. It is so easy to dislike the character of Grace; she causes great pain and suffering to Giles (and Marty) yet Young’s portrayal highlighted the dutiful daughter pulled hither and thither by Melbury’s affectations and pride. She obviously cares for Giles, there is affection between them. Young highlights Grace’s pure nature by showing her to be willing to marry Giles, as that was promised, her discomfort when she hurts him, her revulsion on finding out about Fitzpiers affairs. Yet she also shows the curiosity and infatuation for the educated doctor. Young plays Grace so she is as slender and radiant as a young birch tree surrounded by oppressive oaks. Grace does not fit in, yet she also belongs. This is her tragic fate.
I read a review of the book once that said Giles was a ‘wet lettuce’ and I know his passive inaction can be infuriating for people who want him to just ravish Grace and get on with it. But Hardy was demonstrating how people are trapped by their situation, because of the morals of their religious and judgmental society.
Adam Fuller is a quiet, serious presence who luckily possesses an extremely expressive pair of green eyes that were able to convey all of the love, passion and desire for Grace but keeping it all restrained in his careful dialogue with her; always respectful to her and dutiful to her father. His slightly uncouth ways (covered in apples, grubs in the food), quoting scripture and his rural accent make him an unsuitable partner for a lady. Yet, if Giles was portrayed as a rural bumpkin, a backwoods joke, then the play would have failed. Luckily, Fuller conveyed his worth, his attributes, the goodness of Giles and this allowed the audience to understand why he gave up his shelter for love. Giles understood that if they spent even an hour together in the hut it would have been worse than death for Grace, in that puritanical Victorian society. For this, Giles was willing to die to protect her.
I would give this play 5/5. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen I still gasped when Fitzpiers said Felice instead of Grace. I still cried when Marty puts flowers on Giles’ grave and gives her last speech.
Go and see it! More information about the show dates and times
The Pine Planters
We work here together
In blast and breeze;
He fills the earth in,
I hold the trees.
He does not notice
That what I do
Keeps me from moving
And chills me through.
He has seen one fairer
I feel by his eye,
Which skims me as though
I were not by.
And since she passed here
He scarce has known
But that the woodland
Holds him alone.
I have worked here with him
Since morning shine,
He busy with his thoughts
And I with mine.
I have helped him so many,
So many days,
But never win any
Small word of praise!
Shall I not sigh to him
That I work on
Glad to be nigh to him
Though hope is gone?
Nay, though he never
Knew love like mine,
I’ll bear it ever
And make no sign!
Thomas Hardy 1909