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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (article first published : 2002-09-2)

Two people who probably slept very well last night after the 12 long and frustrating years it has taken for them to give birth to their musical “child” are brothers Raymond and John Ellis. For many of the audience members at last night’s premiere – myself included – it was a sheer moment of joy mixed with undisguised relief to see their vision become reality as cast member Joel Zuma sang the very first opening phrase of the musical.

Far from the Madding Crowd – The Musical opened its three week run in the Playhouse Opera last night to a glittering audience representing the cream of Durban’s society. It was balm to the senses to see people “dressing up” to go to the theatre again and thereby acknowledging the importance of the occasion. After all, it’s not often that two Durbanites write a full-scale musical which has the capacity to move into the international scene alongside productions in the West End and on Broadway.

The show is a creative triumph – the music is soaring, the lyrics beautiful and representative of the style of Thomas Hardy’s novel and the cast is well-rehearsed, impeccably prepared and vocally strong. However, there is no doubt that the producers themselves will acknowledge that the show is not yet complete and there is still much ironing-out to do.

The question is posed – can any production however tried and tested be said to be without flaws? A brand new show has to have its teething problems. It doesn’t matter how long the rehearsal period, the whole effect of any major production such as this can only be seen on stage in its final process with costumes, sets, lighting and sound. Then, and only then, can directors and producers effectively assess it as a complete unit because that is when hitherto hidden flaws – and highlights – manifest themselves.

Far from the Madding Crowd – The Musical could be cut by half an hour and still retain its effectiveness. Perhaps some of this time could be taken from the opening scene which, while being conceptually clever and creative, is unnecessarily long and lacks a sense of expectation. The end of the show also needs to be reworked as it is somewhat abrupt and does not leave one with the sense of fulfillment the show deserves.

There are often irrational imbalances in the style of direction and some of the costumes are a bit strange. Even considering that they double as scene shifters on occasion, I had serious problems with seeing women in a period piece wearing trousers. And it did look as if a major trainers corporation had sponsored the shoes – a simple fabric over-boot would solve this problem.

That said, this is a must-see production for everything that is good about it. Set in rural England in mid-1800 and featuring a mainly Durban cast, the story is simply told and you don’t have to have read Thomas Hardy’s novel to appreciate the musical version.

It is David Dennis as Edward Boldwood who carries the show. Rock solid, his superb strong voice and control offers excitement to his every scene. Matching him with her musical command and sense of fun as Bathsheba Everdene is Karen van Pletsen with Aubrey Poo lending stature and dependability to the character of the faithful Gabriel Oak.

Duncan Royce is a strong and volatile Frank Troy, handling some complicated music in his soul-searching scene. Kate Bruce brought a sassy brightness to Bathsheba’s maid Liddy and Heather Leite is a luminous and fragile Fanny Robin.

Mention must also be made of Glenn Swart and Peter Court who between them play a dizzying number of roles and Jacques le Roux, who is an engaging and highly focused young actor – watch him for the future! The sub principals’ characters were well-defined and there was good interaction between them.

An interesting aspect is the device of turning “The Madding Crowd” into a single person, performed by Boyzie Cekwana in his usual elegant and gracious movement style.

As I said, it’s not often that we get to see a production of this stature. Go and see it – be part of the process as it makes its way forward into a more national and, hopefully, international arena. Talk about it, discuss it, analyse it – and in so doing, bring back stimulating argument into the field of theatre. As with all reviews on artSMart, you are invited to send your comments or criticism to Letters to the Editor on enquiries@artsmart.co.za

Book at Computicket on 083 915-8000, or call Playhouse Dial A Seat on 031 369-9444. School bookings from Calli Denton on 083 661-7871 or 031 209-6634. For block bookings, call Margie Coppen on 083 251-9412. – Caroline Smart




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