The Hen and Chickens Theatre
I’m not much of a reader of classic books, nor a watcher of the assorted TV and film adaptations. So, heading into Not The Way Forward‘s Casterbridge I know little about the Thomas Hardy original. What I did know was that this promised to be a female-led modernisation. Would a better prior knowledge have helped? I would say not. After all, it’s the job of the creatives to tell a story an audience can enjoy and understand without prior research.
Thankfully, Casterbridge does well enough in feeding you the important plot elements. We’re initially introduced to young couple Mary and Sam, who for unknown reasons have had a major disagreement. This leads to Mary offering her husband, along with newborn baby Eddie, up for sale. It’s clearly a joke and yet Rachael takes up the offer. Jump forward 20 years and Rachael is presumed lost at sea, leaving Sam and Eddie destitute. Luckily, Sam finds that Mary is now a successful hedge fund manager and the pair agree to marry, so that she can support Eddie. From there it is a whirlwind story of betrayal, love triangles and money.
Which brings us to the modern day setting and gender reversals. I’m sure when the story was originally published in the late 1800s such scandal made for a marvellous read; especially as it was originally serialised in a newspaper, so each edition required another cliff-hanger moment. But to bring it into modern day, with hedge funds instead of merchants, doesn’t add much. If anything, it sullies matters. In an age of 24-hour news and the Internet, they have had to go to great pains to make some plot lines work. But the biggest issue is just why should we care about these hedge fund managers! One of the reasons offered for the modernisation is to introduce a strong pop soundtrack, but it never truly materialises. There are simply a few song snippets played here and there with no obvious purpose.
The gender reversal does offer an alternative angle on a story that no doubt originally had its men cold and formal, and woman who fainted at the slightest scandal. But again, it feels without great purpose. The story starts and ends and in between there is no emotional pull, no tension to grip us. In taking on and updating a classic in this way, surely the first question has to be about what you can say that’s new.
There are elements though that do work, and which might be taken on to future projects. The directing at times is well considered. A series of short snappy scenes bleed seamlessly from one to the next, giving it a smooth, punchy feel. The use of a narrator also guides us quickly through essential plot developments. It’s a shame both these are only lightly used, as they could help in keeping things moving along at a quicker and steadier pace. The latter would have further assisted with gaps in the plot which feel lost from the original material. Chief offender being Luke, who appears from nowhere without any great attempt to explain his relevance.
Unfortunately Casterbridge just doesn’t quite work. Without tension or gripping characters, it is simply an hour where we rattle through some drama and are left wondering what message we are supposed to take from it all.
Based on the novel by: Thomas Hardy
Adapated and directed by: Dorothy McDowell
Produced by: Not The Way Forward
Casterbridge: The Life (And Death) Of A Woman Of Character played at Hen and Chickens as part of Camden Fringe 2022.