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New Hardy Players to stage drama to commemorate the Great War

PUBLISHED: 17:00 23 July 2014 | UPDATED: 17:01 23 July 2014

Wessex Scenes featuring the New Hardy Players left to right: Jem Purchess (Chris Pullen), John Whiting (Howard Payton), Private Cantle (Brian Caddy) and  Keziar Cantle (Sue Worth)

Wessex Scenes featuring the New Hardy Players left to right: Jem Purchess (Chris Pullen), John Whiting (Howard Payton), Private Cantle (Brian Caddy) and Keziar Cantle (Sue Worth)

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Thomas Hardy’s work has never had more resonance than now as preparations start to commemorate the Great War. To mark it, the New Hardy Players will stage a drama last directed by Hardy himself in 1916

Wessex Scenes with the New Hardy Platers  Private and Mrs Cantle  (Brian Caddy and Sue Worth)Wessex Scenes with the New Hardy Platers Private and Mrs Cantle (Brian Caddy and Sue Worth)

It is June 1916, the eve of the Battle of the Somme, and the Hardy Players are preparing to perform scenes from The Dynasts by Thomas Hardy to raise money for the Red Cross.

Hardy himself has written the script and oversees the production. He writes a foreword contrasting the “scientific slaughter” of the current war with the chivalry and relative inefficiency of the long campaigns against Napoleon.

The Players struggle to cast the play due to leading members being called up, but still the Show Must Go On! ...

***

A century later, as part of the commemorations for the start of the Great War, the New Hardy Players will re-create both the occasion and the performance of the original Hardy Players. It features the threat of invasion by France, the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar, the death of Nelson, and the final epic struggle at Waterloo as seen through the eyes of the Wessex folk in Budmouth. With songs and music from Napoleonic times and World War One, rich local dialect and a mummer’s play, the performance has tremendous resonance and interest for modern-day audiences.

Directing this exciting production is Tim Laycock, a well-known singer, actor, musician, storyteller and historian, who also arranged, composed and conducted the music for this year’s Dorchester community play, Drummer Hodge.

To fully appreciate what the New Hardy Players are doing this year, Tim says you need to set it in context of the original Hardy Players.

“They were a group of local people, mostly resident in Dorchester, with an interest in theatre and performance,” says Tim, who is himself Dorset born and bred. “They performed all the first adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s novels as stage plays, usually in the Corn Exchange or the old Pavilion in Weymouth. The plays were very popular and attracted a lot of press attention, mainly because Hardy was such a significant national figure at that time.”

At first Hardy was rather cautious, says Tim: “Although he had always loved theatre, he was also aware that the standard of acting amongst the Players was rather variable.

“In common with many amateur companies, they found it hard to attract young men, so the leading males often looked less than convincing as Hardy’s heroes. Their great strength was in portraying local, often comic characters like Christian Cantle and the Dewey family in Under the Greenwood Tree. They also had a great star in Gertrude Bugler, a lovely, natural actress who gave the first portrayals of such great Hardy heroines as Marty South (The Woodlanders) and Tess (Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”

Gertrude is also the link between the original Hardy Players and the New Hardy Players.

When the original Players performed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, her younger sister Norrie played Liza-Lu, one of the milkmaids. In 2004, when Norrie celebrated her 100th birthday she was asked what she would most like as a present. Her answer was that the Players should be re-formed. Norrie’s friend Devina Symes formed the group which now produces adaptations of the books and plays about Hardy and his life. Norrie, who died in 2011 aged 105, appeared in several productions.

“Many of us had the pleasure of acting with Norrie, and hearing her reminiscences of Thomas Hardy and the original productions. So we have a real sense of continuity with the original group,” says Tim. “Norrie was keen to encourage young people to develop an interest in the works of Hardy and in the theatre, and she very generously left a legacy to the Players specifically to allow us to help younger actors to take part in our productions.”

A unique collaboration

The 2014 production of Wessex Scenes is a selection of episodes from Hardy’s poetic drama The Dynasts, all about the Napoleonic Wars. In 1916 The Players were asked to put on some performances to raise money for the Red Cross. Hardy himself selected four scenes from The Dynasts, and extended them with additional dialogue and several poems that were set to music and sung in folksong style. He was also involved in the set design and even the direction, so it’s a unique collaboration.

“We’re using the original script,” says Tim, “but I thought the occasion of the performance itself was so interesting that I’ve written some additional scenes; so when the audience arrive they will find themselves at a 1916 fundraising evening for the Red Cross, in which the main entertainment will be a play set at the time of the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.”

Some people complain that Hardy is all doom and gloom but Tim says there are plenty of laughs in Wessex Scenes: “Hardy wove a light-hearted love story into the plot, with Gertrude Bugler playing the heroine; there’s some classic local characters and wonderfully funny dialogue which I think people will enjoy immensely.”

The show will be rich musically, drawing on popular songs from two prolific periods for song making. The years from the French Revolution in 1789 through to the end of the French wars in 1815 were perhaps the greatest era for expressive and often racy folk songs and some lively dance music and the First World War produced songs we still sing today.

Tim has established a close working relationship with the National Trust and Max Gate, the house that Hardy designed and lived in. It’s also the venue where the first performances of Wessex Scenes will be take place. Three years ago Tim began to work as artist-in-residence at three of the Trust’s Hardy Country properties – Max Gate, Hardy’s Birthplace (at Lower Bockhampton) and Clouds Hill (the former home of T.E. Lawrence). As part of that work, the New Hardy Players were invited to perform scenes from Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge in the garden at Max Gate.

Last year they performed The Woodlanders on the croquet lawn at Max Gate, and also rehearsed there on Sunday afternoons. “Visitors were sometimes surprised to find love scenes or arguments going on in the kitchen garden,” says Tim.

They also performed at Hardy’s Birthplace, and took part in a DVD which Tim directed for the National Trust called Thomas Hardy - Master Storyteller of Dorset, which now shows continuously in the Max Gate kitchen. If you look carefully you can spot Norrie Woodall, playing the part of Hardy’s mother.

Tim, who has performed at the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, says he loves working in Dorset with this special amateur group: “We have several people with really good natural Dorset accents, which is so important to Hardy adaptations, it lends a great authenticity to the shows; and the storyteller in me loves working with friends to present Hardy’s great works in an evocative and entertaining way.”

You might think Wessex Scenes is quite enough to keep Tim Laycock and the New Hardy Players busy, but he is already thinking about 2015, which will be the Players’ 10th anniversary. “We might revisit The Return of the Native, which is my personal favourite of all Hardy’s novels, or we might do Under the Greenwood Tree or Far From the Madding Crowd - there are so many to choose from! Whatever it is, it will be a real celebration of Hardy and Dorset.”

***

25 July: Watercombe House

All the above performances start at 7.30pm. There is also a performance on 27July at the Thomas Hardy conference at Dorchester (8pm).

In September there will be indoor performances at the Tivoli, Wimborne (17 September) and The Exchange, Sturminster Newton (27 September).

For more information on the New Hardy Players, please visit their website hardyonline.org

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