At the risk of sounding complacent, you can always rely upon a company like Shared Experience. Justly celebrated for their innovative blend of the physical and psychological, they've often been able to illuminate traditional texts in ways you could never anticipate and, similarly, never forget. There have been many fruitful collaborations in the past with writer Helen Edmundson- her Mill on the Floss or Anna Karenina leap to mind- but on this occasion it's not an established classic but a lesser known novel that receives special attention.
Mary Webb's novel tells the tale of one Hazel Woodus, a spirited, utterly innocent girl whose unworldliness- and beauty- is what attracts two very different men. The first is the overbearing Jack Reddin, a local squire who rescues Hazel from a blizzard and, enraptured by her singularity, sets out to possess her, by any means necessary. Her other suitor is the virtuous minister Edward Marston who seeks not to dominate Hazel but to protect and nurture her.
Hazel is a girl so attuned to Nature she empathises with the suffering of every creature and sees animals as her natural companions, something amusingly illustrated by the way she trails her injured creatures as 'bridesmaids' at her wedding! But Nature has inherent duality- a destructive as well as creative force- and nowhere is this better emphasised than in Hazel's own personality which is torn between Edward's gentle tenderness and Jack's overt virility. Every time her inner nature encounters conflict, the cast- stationed behind tall bars that seem to represent the tenuous barriers between our primitive and more 'civilised' emotions-- begin a slow, seductive tap, emphasising the welter of passionate emotion threatening to engulf he.
A character like Hazel - who must seem genuinely innocent in order to make the drama work - is a tough challenge indeed, but one that newcomer Natalia Tena manages magnificently. The word superlative comes readily to mind for she gives a performance of such persuasive- and endearing- authenticity you're completely engrossed and moved by her fate. Surrounded by a superb cast, and expertly directed by Nancy Meckler, here's a production to truly cherish.