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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Far From the Madding Crowd'

by David Mead

June 20&23, 2012 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Quite why audiences have never really bought into David Bintley’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” has always been a bit of a mystery. Thomas Hardy certainly has something of a reputation for being a difficult author to read, something I would contest, but his 19th-century turbulent tale of love, obsession, deceit and tragedy is perfect ballet material. Better still, it is so English.

Fundamentally, “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a romantic tragedy. The story charts the emotional rollercoaster ridden by Bathsheba Everdene, who has inherited a large farm, and her relationships with three men: solid, loyal employee and practical, down to earth former sheep farmer Gabriel Oak; the well-to-do neighbouring gentleman farmer, William Boldwood; and the dashing but two-timing cad, Sergeant Francis Troy.

Bathsheba is an intriguing and complex character. Like most of Hardy’s characters she is inherently virtuous, but she is a woman, an outwardly strong woman, in a man’s world. What makes her, and the story, so interesting is that while she can be captivating, there are things about her that make her rather less so. She can be controlled, but she can be wild and impulsive. All that calls for a very strong dancer-actor. Bintley originally postponed making the ballet until he “found his Bathsehba”, as he puts it, in Leticia Muller. Sixteen years on, he has found a new Bathsheba in the outstanding Natasha Oughtred.

Oughtred certainly has a winning smile, but the lady can act too. She switched from being shy, to spirited, wild and impulsive, to demure and considered, with ease. She made you believe. I couldn’t help noticing how, during the sheep shearing contest scene, she examined the fleeces and chatted animatedly with her maid. It was a small moment, but it illustrated just how totally immersed in the role she was. While all the steps and gestures were there, I was rather less persuaded by Elisha Willis interpretation. That same sense of reality wasn’t quite there. The emotion was sometimes a little muted, with sometimes too much a sense of detachment, even coolness.

Iain Mackay and Jamie Bond were both effective as Troy. Both their first encounters with Bathsheba (Willis and Oughtred respectively) on that moonlit night were spine-tingling affairs, Bintley’s choreography here starting relatively lightly before exploding into an passionate climax of MacMillan-esque proportions. Bond, though, definitely had the edge when it came to rage. His finding of Fanny Robin’s coffin in his kitchen and subsequent dance with her corpse was heart stopping. Even that, though, was nothing compared to the boiling rage showed in the penultimate scene at Boldwood’s party. His anger, throwing of Oughtred to the floor and then grabbing of her arm as he attempted to reclaim her was so realistic and vicious you really worried for her.

Matthew Lawrence came as close to getting Boldwood right as anyone is likely to get. Solid, upright and formal, he is not given to excessive gesture, even though infatuated by Bathsheba. Body language and a simple look can say just as much as a series of steps, but it takes a clever dancer to be able to project that across the footlights. Lawrence did a great job.

I must also mention Jenna Roberts, who gave us a nicely judged innocent and caring Fanny Robin, who had a relationship with Troy, and whose death while giving birth to their child sparks off Troy’s downfall.

The ballet has plenty of humour too, especially in Rory Mackay’s shortsighted Joseph Poorgrass, and in the Greenhill Fair scene, an evocation of the typical 19th century fair complete with three-legged man, bearded lady, and a quite brilliant and hilarious telling of the Dick Turpin story that includes a pushbike disguised as a horse.

Although Hardy’s novel revolves around the central characters, it is just as much about the people of the time. Bintley taps into this well, following Hardy in portraying positively the everyday folk, be they farmworkers, merchants at the market or travelling entertainers. The whole company were on top form, playing their roles well, and clapping and stomping their way through Bintley’s folk infused ensemble dances with great enthusiasm. How great it was to see recognisable, traditional English country dance in a ballet. Everyone was helped along by Paul Reade’s wonderful score that so closely matched every mood that it and the dance became as one.

The Wessex setting and the nature and vagaries of farm life at the time are equally themes in themselves. Hayden Griffin’s set evokes perfectly the grassy but often treeless uplands of Dorset. Thanks to clever panels that slide in and out, the latticework set transforms in seconds from downland to Casterbridge market to farmyard, to farmhouse kitchen. Mark Jonathan’s lighting is equally impressive, especially in the way it gives a sense of the time of day. Much of the ballet takes place in the evening or early morning. This was a rural community, remember, and every hour of light was desperately important.

“Far From the Madding Crowd” is undoubtedly one of Bintley’s best ballets. It makes you laugh, it sends a chill down the spine, and it makes you cry. Let’s hope it’s not another ten years before we see it again, although I wonder seriously whether it will ever make a reappearance.

Meanwhile, good news for Birmingham Royal Ballet is that they are one of 34 arts groups to receive a share of £56 million from the Government’s Catalyst: Endowments Fund to help them build up endowment funds to meet day-to-day running costs. As with the other recipients, though, the company will only get the money when they have raised set amounts themselves. The Fund is part of a Government initiative to boost private giving to the arts.

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