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Far From The Madding Crowd Rehearsal Blog 2: Visit to Sheepdrove Farm

March 31st, 2015 No comments

“I’m going to feed my father’s flock,
His young and tender lambs,
That over hills and over dales
Lie waiting for their dams.

O stay! O stay! You handsome maid,
And rest a moment here,
For there is none but you alone
That I do love so dear…”

Searching for Lambs, English Folk Song, Anon

Hardy’s world in Far from the Madding Crowd is pastoral, and sheep farming is in its very lifeblood. Just like in the folk songs he grew up singing (several of which are beautifully staged in our adaptation) Hardy writes love stories that play out in the open air. The cycle of the sheep farmer’s year beats out the rhythm of the novel, and the characters’ lives are often intertwined with the fate of their flock.

So, with rehearsals now well under way, we’ve been racking up an impressive list of sheep-related questions. How do you assist a ewe in lambing time? How long does it take to shear a sheep, and how on earth do you do it? How exactly do you save your flock when it gets into the clover? These questions are particularly important for cast member Simon Bubb, whose character Gabriel Oak is an expert shepherd. But with the whole ensemble creating scenes of lambing and pasture bloat live on stage, we were keen to find out more.

Luckily for us, The Watermill enjoys the support of Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Lambourn, and before we knew it we were off on a field trip! Our curiosity was rewarded with a wonderful day. After being met with tea and delicious organic cake (carrot and beetroot, highly recommended) we were given a demonstration of sheep-handling, with several of our cast members draped in fleeces taking on the role of the sheep. After the general hilarity of these performances we were given a talk on Sheepdrove’s admirable organic policy, and taken on a tour of the farm.

On a beautiful spring day amidst the Berkshire downs, it was easy to imagine we were in Hardy’s unchanging Wessex. We got to meet some sheep, turkey, and the world’s most adorable piglets, one of which entertained us by escaping from his pen. The cast left with armfuls of organic honey and wine bought in the shop, and more importantly, with many useful facts to inform their performances. We are very grateful to Sheepdrove Farm for a brilliant day and a wealth of authentic details, which I’m sure will be vital in bringing our pastoral tale to life.

Danielle Pearson
Researcher, Far From The Madding Crowd


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Thomas Hardy and the Defence of Rural Life

March 24th, 2015 No comments

“Dick the carter, Bob the shepherd, and Sam the ploughman, are, it is true, alike in the narrowness of their means and their general open-air life. But they cannot be rolled together into any such Hodge as is dreamt of by the distanced inquirer.” Thomas Hardy, The Dorsetshire Labourer, 1883

Thomas Hardy had a strange life. Born in rural Victorian Dorset, he died at the grand old age of 87 as a famous literary man in a world of jazz, flappers and Modernism. His father was a builder, his mother a servant, and he was raised in a humble cottage. Yet Hardy was to become one of the great literary figures of his age.

If it was unusual enough for a man like him to join the literary intelligentsia in London, by his later years an even rarer thing occurred − they came to him. In his Dorset house Maxgate, Hardy would eventually entertain the crème de la crème of turn of the century society, from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia!) to George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and J.M. Barrie.

Map of Hardy’s Wessex

But all of this was unthinkable in 1873, when the young Hardy, then an architect, returned to his family home for a summer of writing. The result was Far from the Madding Crowd, serialized in the Cornhill magazine. It was commissioned based on the “rural charm” of Hardy’s earlier novels, and the writer was well aware of it. He had struggled to be published throughout his twenties, and he must have seen this offer as his big break. If the middle class readers wanted pastoral romance, then pastoral romance he would give them.

But Hardy was treading a fine line. He’d had an unusually advanced education for someone of his background, and so he fell into an ambiguous social space. This experience of transitioning status would become a perennial theme in his work, and as he sat down to write Far from the Madding Crowd, his task was to render his rural community for the enjoyment of a higher class readership. How could he give his readers what they wanted, without betraying his own people by stereotyping them?

In a letter to his illustrator, Hardy asked that his “rustics, although quaint, may be made to appear intelligent, and not boorish at all.” Later in his life, he would express the same sentiment much more caustically, in his essay The Dorsetshire Labourer. Here, he passionately defended the individuality and dignity of rural folk, a stance already taking shape in Far from the Madding Crowd. Though the novel is indeed bursting with charm and humour, he was careful to make his supporting cast feel real too, with their own desires and concerns.

So far, it has been an absolute pleasure for a confessed Hardy geek like myself to attend rehearsals of Jessica Swale’s production. One of my favourite aspects of the adaptation is how funny, clever, and sympathetic the ensemble are, and the superb cast are really doing them justice! As we keep working to understand the Victorian Dorset of Far from the Madding Crowd, I’ll be on hand to answer questions as best I can. So if you’ve ever wondered about God-Forgive-Me jugs, bushels of Biffins or Farmer Boldwood’s Leicesters, watch this space…

Danielle Pearson
Researcher, Far From The Madding Crowd

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Far From The Madding Crowd – Rehearsal Blog – Week One

March 20th, 2015 No comments

‘When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.’ Chapter One: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

On Monday morning, as we gathered for the first day of rehearsals for The Watermill Theatre’s production of Far From the Madding Crowd, I must have resembled Farmer Oak. I was about to begin assisting Jessica Swale upon her new stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel and there was the familiar sense of nervous excitement in the room that one always feels on a first day.

As I listened to the actors bring the text and rich tapestry of characters to life, I was struck by how expertly Jessica had captured the sense of the community at the heart of Hardy’s story. And it made me think how this was a perfect choice for The Watermill Theatre. It is a play with a rural community at its heart, being created by a creative community, within the rural community of Bagnor and Newbury. “I wanted to adapt this book because it has all the Hardyesque drama, but with a degree of joy too. It’s unusual that Hardy writes a happy ending, and there’s something celebratory about the book. It’s a love story to English rural life, and that felt so appropriate for Newbury,” Jessica told us.

Jessica and her designer Philip Engleheart guided us through their research, and then took us through the model box set and costume designs. It always astounds me the sheer quality and imagination of the designers who work at this incredible venue, and Philip is no exception. Within this unique playing space he has created a multi-functioning set with trucks that move in and around the playing area to create architecture. Just as with Philip’s design for Sense & Sensibility, there are ingenious reveals, clever details and a set that achieves the ‘everyday that does everything.’ We will be transported to intimate interiors, open spaces, burning barns, churches and festivals.

Set Designer Philip Engleheart showing the model box to the company of Far From the Madding Crowd.

We have also been incredibly fortunate to have Danielle Pearson working as our research expert. Having studied Hardy there seems to be no detail that escapes her. Coupled with this, we have original music by the wonderful Catherine Jayes, who composed the musical arrangements for Calamity Jane last year, and a talented cast of actor musicians with our brilliant DSM Ceire Hoey keeping track of everything.

At the end of today’s rehearsal I turned to Danielle and we began to discuss the themes of the piece. The play is set in the Victorian era of the mid 1800’s and covers a great many issues, politics and agendas so how could we sum it up in one precise sentence? Danielle suggested a mighty fine starter for ten:

Sexual politics in relation to shifting class.

I think she may have nailed it.

More to follow…

All the best,

Neil Bull
Assistant Director, Far From The Madding Crowd

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Final week of rehearsals for The Secret Adversary

February 10th, 2015 No comments


The Watermill has many strings to its bow, and time travel is absolutely one of them. This week it’s the 1920s. The Young Adventurers are moving in as glamour and wit trickle through every door.

Usually, that would only happen in tech week, but as we’re the first show of the season, we’ve been lucky enough to get the set up a little early and have some time to play on stage. With such a complex show, it’s been really useful for everyone to get this sneak preview.

The first thing we looked at on set were the magic cues, with Mr Magic John Bulleid. Without giving away any official Magic Circle secrets (who knows what the consequences might be), a lot of the tricks are about what the audience can and can’t see. The success of the magic tricks is reliant on the audience’s sight lines and, fortunately, they all work and the tricks are creating many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from observers.

We have also been moving the chase sequence onto the stage. This scene uses every entrance and exit on the stage.  The cast pop up through traps, dash up ladders and in and out of doors – all at great pace.

Wednesday night, after a mostly physical rehearsal, our choreographer Lucy Cullingford joined us to finish the day with a dance call. Lucy brought a warm up that everyone needed. There were neck, back and leg massages. As Lucy’s partner for this exercise I got two goes, so that she could demonstrate to the others. So. Much. Zen.

The dances are brilliant fun and will look even more amazing with the costumes and set in place. The opening dance is particularly cheery, warm and funny. It’s a combination of a hug from your Gran mixed with a healthy splash of comedy. It welcomes us into Tommy and Tuppence’s world right away.

To me, this sets the tone for the whole story. No matter what is thrown at The Young Adventurers, and the cast of actors, they maintain a smile throughout. And we love them for it!

Holly Mazur
Assistant Director

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Big Bagnor Household – From Wicker Man to Tin Man

February 10th, 2015 No comments

Suddenly, it’s eviction day and  sadly we are about to lose Trev and the rest of our house mates with whom we’ve been sharing the amazing journey along our very own yellow brick road of The Watermill’s refit.

Unlike other house mates, we have all enjoyed a great relationship, especially in this, the last week, when we are all now working together in the same space – the Neptune team trying to commission all the component parts into one complex operating system, and The Watermill team turning a building site back into a theatre.

Tuesday must have looked bizarre to any casual observer. With most of the doors open into the theatre, we were trudging through the snow bringing in the set for The Secret Adversary. Meanwhile, the rest of the site was having the heating units all pushed up to maximum for testing.

As soon as we could close the doors, it was amazing how quickly the theatre went from freezing into the region of it being so hot everyone was stripping off – not a problem we have had before!

At the same time, confused engineers were hunting for units that have now disappeared behind fake stage walls, and then were caught up
in the middle of a magic rehearsal on stage with the cast.

Today, as the final part of the hand-over, I had the joy of the introduction to the master control panel which I suspect may take a while to get to grips with. I was initially amazed by some of the heating zones labelling. When I saw ‘P and O Circle units’ I thought, having been in The Watermill for a few weeks, the contractors had changed their terms of reference to that of the theatrical stage terms of Prompt side and Opposite prompt. Had we suddenly created a collection of Thespian builders with all that could entail? No, it turns out it was as simple as which row of seats in the theatre the unit was placed above.

However, my favourite, and the simplest piece of the system, the unit in the foyer that brings warm or cool air down the side of the staircase had the legend of Tin Man.

So here we are about to start the technical rehearsal for The Secret Adversary, hopefully nearly back to normal because as someone once said, “There is no place like home”.

Lawrence T Doyle
Production Manager

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Week 3 of rehearsals for The Secret Adversary

January 30th, 2015 No comments

Week three has begun and time is flying by at an extraordinary rate. The company has achieved an enormous amount and now we are starting to see chunks of the play really come together.

Last week ended with the actors looking at the final scene of the play. This means that in two weeks we have looked at the whole play. Gosh.

The world of Tommy and Tuppence is really coming to life, not least because of the beautiful 1920s set and props, courtesy of our Designer Tom Rogers and The Watermill Stage Management Team, that are filtering into the rehearsal room. It’s fun coming in each morning to find new bits of set and props to play with (yesterday was feather fans, today was a table, which has been cleverly designed to represent Tommy’s perspective).

Tom and the team are also finding cunning ways to swiftly transform the actors into their many characters. Backstage costume changes include an American millionaire transforming into a Cockney thug, an evil Bolshevik into a sexy nightclub singer, and many more.

As well as set, props and costume, some of the cast also have new haircuts. Emerald O’Hanrahan has had her long hair cut into a very chic bob for Tuppence.  In the age of The Beard (if you don’t believe me google ‘Beard Baubles’), Garmon Rhys has gone clean shaven for Tommy. They’re both looking very much the part!

Today we are fitting some of Alex Silverman’s music to the scenes. One of my favourite things about this play is that there are some genuinely sweet moments, but they’re never allowed to turn sickly because of the comedy and peril that are close by, in equal measure. Such are the lives of the Young Adventurers Limited. The music and Sarah’s seamless direction are working well together to move the action in a filmic manner from one mood to another.

Whilst I’m on music, look out for the minute-long ‘Money Medley’, you might recognise a few of the numbers.

As we look ahead to running the play in chronological order next week, I am anticipating the transitions from one scene to the next. The content of the play is really looking wonderful, but backstage is a big challenge for the cast and stage management. The intimacy of The Watermill Theatre brings the audience close to the action, but also brings the actors very close to each other in the compact backstage area. Sometimes, they are changing costume, playing an instrument, preparing to bring on some set and moving to their next entrance point in the space of a few lines. This all adds to the excitement as we race towards week four!

Until next week.

Holly Mazur
Assistant Director

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January 27th, 2015 No comments

“The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.” (Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie)

I feel Christies’ quote here from her 1934 novel aptly sums up the ongoing work at The Watermill. When Lawrence (Production Manager) first explained the sheer scale of the work that the theatre would be undergoing in early 2015, Nelly, The Watermill’s Assistant Production Manager and I raised our eyebrows and had a sharp intake of breath at the prospect; an almost impossible feat considering the immensely short timescale for the work of just; “What was that?” “FIVE WEEKS!!”

On Friday, however, Lawrence kindly took me on a tour of the theatre in its current state so I could see its progress for myself.

Since the work started, some of the team and myself have been hiding away in one of the actors cottages amongst every lantern, cable and amp from the theatre. And I mean every SINGLE one – the theatre has been completely stripped and we have been tasked with the job of PAT testing every electrical the theatre holds – and we’re talking hundreds! But we’re keeping our spirits up with copious cups of tea and Ken Bruce’s Pop Master (I’ve been desperately trying to improve my score but at present can only manage to score six points – I’ll stick to the
day job).

Anyway, having not been inside the theatre since the Peter Pan get out at the beginning of the month, I was amazed by the work that has been done so far.  The air conditioning and heating systems are in place and ready for action and I think with a sweep up here and replacing some
floor boards there the job’s a gooden!

On my tour I was able to see areas where some of the ceiling has been taken away and I was fascinated by what lay above. It was amazing to see some more of the original mill mechanics which are currently exposed in the dressing rooms which Lawrence mentioned in his blog post from the 9th of January. Now timeworn mechanics and state-of-the-art chrome tunnels sit nestled happily side-by-side. It was the juxtaposition of these structures which really prompted my re-appreciation for this amazing theatre and what it can achieve and does achieve on a regular basis; cue Christie and her quote about impossibility! Indeed, in classic Watermill style the theatre proves anything is possible despite the heritage, age and size of the building.

It is now only two weeks until the next fit-up which is, of course, for the very exciting premiere of Christie’s The Secret Adversary. In due course we’ll be hauling all of those cables and lanterns back into the theatre and I hope that you as audience members will hardly notice the changes that have happened, as between all of the team we aim to master the act of deception in detective novel fashion and return the theatre to its reputable cosy and inviting atmosphere. Although the detectives among you may notice that you have been at optimum temperature throughout the first act of the show. SUCCESS!

Harriet Leitch
General Production/Stage Management/Wardrobe Assistant

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Big Bagnor Household – Week 3 – The Wicker Man

January 22nd, 2015 No comments

For weeks, in all weather, the team from Synergy have been hard at work in the car park. First they drilled boreholes, then they created trenches and then all the interconnecting pipework arrived to join them up. Now, it is starting to look like nothing ever happened.

However, now my favourite bit of the works is about to start, the idea that I think is brilliant, not only because it is so simple, but because as soon as you enter the foyer you will see it and it’s already being affectionately nicknamed The Wicker Man by the production office.

When you come into the Foyer the first thing you see is the spiral staircase which takes us up to the circle on the first floor, the dressing rooms and technical areas on the second floor and above this is what we all call the lantern.

Now, most purpose built theatres do have lanterns – so it’s a term we all tend to use –probably dating back to the days when theatres were lit by gas. It was a unit fixed on top of the “fly tower” over the stage that could be opened in case of emergency; the theory was that if there was fire and smoke it would be drawn away from the audience.

Anyway, whatever it’s called, it is the highest point of the foyer – and also the warmest. So with the simple use of a fan you could bring all that heat back down to warm the ground floor in the winter and, if you put some louvers up there, in the summer they can be opened to allow hot air to escape and cooler air to come in.

That’s what we are going to do – but not with boring ducting. We are going to have two tubular fabric “snoods” dropping down either side of the staircase so the air can permeate gently out.

These will be fixed to the outer side of the spiral staircase and we will be forced to resist the temptation to turn the fans up to full tilt so we can have them flailing about like those air driven advertising signs you see at festivals. Hence, the affectionate name – The Wicker Man.

Lawrence T Doyle
Production Manager

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Big Bagnor household end of week 2 (Shhhhhhsh)

January 20th, 2015 No comments

Now things are beginning to get a bit baffling – and not only in a technical way.

Not only are we working on the best ways to keep heat in and cold out, but also, and for us equally importantly, trying to insulate against sound, including water noise.
The most thrilling thing this week was lifting the floorboards at the entrance to the auditorium by the water wheel. The amount of water running in the river made the theatre really feel like an island.

We also need to put in systems that will not only ‘baffle’ the mechanical noise, but the air noise caused by our new plant.

The former seems easier to do using shock mounts that stop any vibration, and large amounts of rock wool around any areas that hold the plant.

Air noise and draughts are harder for us to deal with. Basically we have to move large amounts of air around the theatre not only for heating and cooling but to take away stale air – (as you know, if you turn up the blower on your car heater, the more draught you get, the noisier it is). To solve the problem here, we need to use the largest ducts possible. The dressing room ceiling is beginning to look quite industrial.

Today, we lifted the floor at the circle entrances to discover joists with old light fittings on them. About 2 foot below this seems to be an original floor then another ceiling. Quite a lot of alterations were made when the mill was converted into a theatre but many others must predate this.

None of us are fully sure about The Watermill’s history (though on marshland alongside the theatre there are the remains of tenterhook posts, so we believe we were at one point a fulling and tucking mill before we were a corn mill.

Again, I wish to apologise to those with a greater knowledge of air handling than I!

Lawrence T Doyle
Production Manager

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Music, movement and magic – Week 1 of rehearsals for The Secret Adversary

January 16th, 2015 No comments

Hello! I’m Holly, the assistant director on The Secret Adversary. Here is my summary of week one in rehearsals.

We began on Monday morning with a ‘Meet and Greet’, involving the whole theatre, at which we democratically agreed on how to pronounce the word ‘Adversary’. One decision made… tick.

Swiftly after, it was straight to work for the company. Sarah Punshon (Director) had asked us all to bring in facts relating to the time in which our characters lived – things that they would have read about in the newspapers. The first thing we noted was how much happened in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. From inventions, to revolution, to war; it was a time of secrecy and scandal with uncertainty of what the future held.

The cast began rehearsals with musical director, Alex Silverman. We started with the opening number, ‘Look for the Silver Lining’. There was, however, no need to look for the silver lining as the cast took to the song vocally and with instruments in record time. It’s worth mentioning that most of the cast play at least two instruments in this number alone. It’s very impressive.

Added to this was the impressive 1920s-inspired choreography of Lucy Cullingford. Lucy taught the cast the Charleston, a few variations of the grapevine and the Suzie Q, to name but a few. (There were many more, the names of which escape me. Suffice to say they’re joyous.)

Next up was some magic, courtesy of John Bulleid (AKA ‘Magic John). We learnt a number of intricate tricks, none of which I can explain to you. #MagicCircle.

To complete week one, movement director John Nicholson has provided us with vital choreography to help navigate the space, clowning techniques and lessons in how to successfully fall off a chair.

I am genuinely amazed by the amount of information Sarah and the cast have absorbed this week. It is the busiest and most cheerful rehearsal room that I have ever been in. There is a very exciting combination of talent contributing to this production. It’s shaping up to be a jolly good show, dash it all!

Holly Mazur
Assistant Director

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