Kate Chisholm on a stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy. Egdon Heath is the main character in Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native. Discuss." How many sweating A-level students have had to cope with this ubiquitous exam question? So I asked Pat Trueman, who is currently directing a stage adaptation of the novel for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, whether it's possible to make a play out of such an atmospheric book.
Her reply was an emphatic, "Yes! It's a very passionate story so it makes very good theatre. It's all about making choices - the fatal mistake of making the wrong decision at the wrong moment in your life, which takes you off down a path from which you can never recover."
Her production focuses on just six characters - Clym Yeobright who returns to the "blasted Heath" from glittering success as a diamond merchant in Paris and falls passionately but dangerously in love with the sultry, raven-haired Eustacia Vye; his mother Mrs Yeobright, fatally disappointed by Clym and also by her niece, Thomasin, who elopes with the womanising innkeeper, Damon Wildeve; and the gipsy-like Diggory Venn, the most sterling of all the players in this rural tragedy.
It's a doom-laden tale, full of aphorisms like "Sometimes more bitterness is sown in five minutes than can be got rid of in a whole life". Hardy's trio of women are all trapped: Mrs Yeobright by her devotion to the foolhardy Clym, Eustacia by her fatal mistake in believing that Clym will free her from the Heath she so despises, and Thomasin by Wildeve's dishonesty.
As Pat Trueman says, "It's all very feudal; the women are very idealised, put on pedestals which they cannot live up to. You could just as well be in the 13th century as in the middle of the 19th century." The forces of the past pervade the book: paganism and the folklore of Merrie England are pitted against the power of an Old Testament God and the "civilised" social whirl of Budmouth. Bonfires are lit, maypoles are danced around, pins are stuck in wax images, and the Quiet Woman inn is more regularly attended than the local chapel.
But what about Hardy's "ancient", "imperturbable" Heath? How can you convey "the booming wind" that blows across its heathery turf and serves as a Greek chorus to the action, voicing Eustacia's sighs and whipping itself up into a storm to prevent her escape.
"Music," says Pat Trueman, who has chosen sections from Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antarctica - which was originally written as the score for a film about Scott of the Antarctic and which employs a wind machine and a wordless chorus of female voices - to evoke the brooding backdrop of the Heath. And, she says, the adapter Andrew Rattenbury is a Dorset man who grew up knowing Egdon. "He has," she says, "captured the ear of the book very well."
In directing the play, her aim has been to give full effect to Hardy's lush language: "You can't short-change on that. You have to give speeches like Clym's final words 'I am getting used to the horror of my existence' their full force; to let them roll off your tongue. It's just like Shakespeare."
Until April 1. Box office: 01206 573948.