The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, adapted by Sally Hedges

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BBC Radio 7, 17-21 January 2011
Narrated by Michael Henchard (David Calder), Nigel Bryant's production had the hay-trusser confessing his past sins to Elizabeth-Jane (Andrea Raye). Despite his confessional tone, however, we always found him rather unreliable: one who looks back on his misdemeanours - for example, selling his wife Susan (Janet Dale) at Weydon Fair - but seldom seems to learn from them. Hence his apparently inexplicable decision to claim that Elizabeth-Jane had passed away, when quizzed by her real-life father Newsome (John Nettles). More significantly, Henchard seemed blissfully unaware that the listeners would be judging him; on several occasions he spoke in plaintive tones, as if disclaiming responsibility for his actions.
His chief error in Bryant's production was that he refused to accept the realities of a rural world structured around the progress of the seasons and the rituals associated with each season: the sowing of crops, the harvest, the buying and selling of produce and Weydon Fair. Such rituals very much depended on weather conditions: crops were harvested at specific times to avoid destruction by rain. Henchard's main flaw was that he tried to cheat the weather - for example, by organizing an elaborate festival without thinking about providing any shelter if it rained. By contrast Donald Farfrae (Jason Flemyng) spent less money but made sure that his party guests remained dry, even if it was pouring with rain outside.
Bryant also underlined the social aspects of the novel; the contrast between old ways of life (represented by Henchard) and the new world of capitalism represented by Farfrae. Farfrae's methods of business were not only highly successful, but they challenged traditional ways of life upheld by Henchard and his fellow-villagers. Farfrae was an acquisitor: love and loyalty only had meaning for him if they contributed to his own self-aggrandizement. Bryant suggested that Farfrae saw Lucetta Templeman (Sandra Birkin) and Elizabeth-Jane in mercantilist terms, as trophies to help his progress up the social scale, eventually supplanting Henchard as mayor of the town. While Henchard was morally corrupt - having ruthlessly sold his wife - we felt some kind of sympathy for him, as he was no match for the cold, calculating Scotsman. There was a frightening sense of inevitability about the production, as Henchard gradually slid into poverty as Farfrae grew richer and richer.
The central performances were particularly noteworthy. Calder's Henchard was a strong man with the emotions of a child - although sensitive on occasions, he never understood how his actions destroyed Elizabeth-Jane's life, as well as severing his relationship with her. Flemying's Farfrae cultivated an urbane exterior, but we got the sense that he was a cold fish; someone who turned on the charm only when it suited his interests to do so. These contrasting services reinforced the contrast between old and new worlds: Henchard was spontaneous, a product of a rural world, while Farfrae was educated, calculating and urbane. The two women - Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane - were pawns in the struggle between the two men, possessing little or no opportunities for self-determination.
Set in a fast-changing world, in which traditional farming methods were gradually being superseded by mechanization, as well as more cost-effective methods of harvesting and planting, this Mayor of Casterbridge was a revelatory production.