Poor Hazel Woodus: she's torn between two woodsheds, and there's something nasty in each of them. As it were. In one direction is Jack Reddin, the drunken, selfish man from the big house; behind Door No. 2 stands Edward Marston, a Nonconformist minister who carries the Christian virtues of restraint to the point of paralysis. Hazel's heart draws her to Edward, her loins to Jack. Back and forth runs this innocent child of nature across the Shropshire countryside, scandalising her small, puritanical community.
If that sounds absurd, I'm afraid it's no more so than a number of lines in Helen Edmundson's adaptation. "I killed a bee last summer," grieves Hazel to establish her nature-girl credentials. "I have found the meaning of my life," rhapsodises Edward on meeting her, whilst his mother objects to Hazel's lack of Christianity: "She refuses to be died for!" When Edward finally confronts Jack, he damns him for being "no more than sex organs!"
Edmundson either coined these lines herself or at the very least took an active decision to retain them from Mary Webb's novel (which I have not read). She is an accomplished adaptor – her Anna Karenina and The Mill On The Floss, also for Shared Experience, have won clutches of awards – so we must presume that she knew what she was doing in this case. But I'm blowed if I can see it.
I'm not sure many of the audience could, either. Even at a press night, when much of the house is composed of friends and comrades of the company, it's rare to get as many as four curtain calls. Yet mere minutes earlier these same people had been sniggering at plonking lines and a rural melodrama akin to Thomas Hardy written in crayon.
Nancy Meckler's production bears all the Shared Experience hallmarks of blending a straightforward text with imaginative, non-naturalistic staging, including clog-dancing which ranges from an equine clatter to flamenquista passion. But why this project? Does it contain a childlike wonder and insight, or merely a childish naïveté? Like Hazel herself (an assured performance from Natalia Tena, more or less straight out of school), it weaves from one side to the other of the line separating bravery from foolhardiness. I truly don't know what to make of it. Probably not a stage adaptation, though.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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