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“To this I put my name”- Review: Casterbridge

If Thomas Hardy had blessed his female characters with more than an “ephemeral precious essence of youth,” perhaps he would have produced something along the lines of Dorothy McDowell’s Casterbridge, an adaptation of Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Performed at The Space in London, Casterbridge reacts against its male-dominated Victorian source in creating a wholly unique re-telling, set in London’s fast-paced financial district between the 1980s and 2000s. Expecting a feminist re-telling of a classic favourite, I was curious to see how McDowell would re-fashion the original novel with a contemporary, progressive ethos. The ingenuity of a 2000s setting came as a pleasant surprise, for what else could capture the competitive, dramatic tensions between an 1840s Henchard and Farfrae quite like a hedge fund run by a ruthless girlboss?

A stage composed of cardboard boxes and suitcases creates a charmingly rustic yet rootless vibe which, for those familiar with Hardy’s original, refers to the pastoral nature of Casterbridge, a comment on the continuous battle for self-interest, whether it be the provincial politics of a Victorian town or contemporary financial affairs.

This female-centric adaptation is grounded by the charmingly awkward Eddie Henchard (Lara Deering), perhaps the most constant character throughout the play and providing a good dose of comic relief in his veneration of Farfrae. I admired the choice to pass Elizabeth-Jane’s feminine passivity onto a male equivalent, with Eddie being the perfect juxtaposition to the ruthless hostility between Farfrae and Henchard. Eddie’s quiet power not only serves to prevent these two businesswomen from overpowering the stage, but also extends the defiance of gender stereotypes by representing a sensitive young man who is not possessed by the impulsive arrogance of the male protagonists in Hardy’s work.

Then there is Luke Le Sueuer, played by Leah O’Grady. McDowell’s male version of Lucetta maintains the sly characteristics of a desperate woman, yet the moment O’Grady saunters onstage, the ingenuity of McDowell’s experiment with character is just as authentic when originally female characters are transferred to male counterparts. Likewise, Gilfillan’s portrayal of Mary Henchard is incredibly profound, as we see her shift from angry drunk to cocksure CEO.

All these gradations are articulated to the audience by Farfrae (Lorelei Piper) herself. With insight into the story that Henchard does not have, Piper’s performance effectively ties together the dramatic events of the story for viewers unfamiliar with Hardy’s novel. Strutting around the stage in a flashy pink suit, she encapsulates the novelty and innovation which is so threatening to Mary.

I found Mary Henchard’s will particularly potent, as it is taken directly from Michael Henchard’s own will in Hardy’s novel. The play’s final line, “to this I put my name,” delivered profoundly and succinctly by Gilfillan, illuminates the versatility of language; the theme of remorse is relevant regardless of time, place, or gender. The originality of McDowell’s adaptation lies in the detailed artistic choices rather than in sweeping maxims: replacing a town fair with a bar, an arrogant, afflicted man with an ambitious girl boss, a skimmity ride for leaked photos. Topped off with catchy noughties hits, Casterbridge appeals to book lovers and theatre-goers alike.

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