One woman. Three men. And how they affect – and are affected by – a rural community in the 19th century. Landowners and their whims are not the only inconstant in these people’s lives. There is also the weather, livestock disease and the threat from undomesticated predators.

Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd was published in 1874 and gave the writer his first taste of real success. This new stage adaptation for the English Touring Theatre company by Mark Healy is staged by Kate Saxon in a skeleton barn setting of several levels designed by Libby Watson. Six of the 13-strong cast play more than one part, wearing earth and natural-dye colours, against which Sergeant Troy’s military scarlet slashes with as lethal an effect as his show-off sword-drill.

Bathsheba Everdene is the central character, played here by Rebecca O’Mara with just the right blend of feisty certainty, undone by a wilful security based as much on her physical attractiveness as on her reluctance to learn by anything other than experience. Which, of course, turns out to be a succession of increasingly bitter lessons. Laura Elphinstone sketches in Bathsheba’s maid and companion Liddy in bright contrast.

O’Mara catches onto just the right edge of hysteria when Fanny’s Jennifer Bryden body is brought coffined into her parlour. That’s the scene in which Adam Crossdell’s Francis Troy really becomes a man who suffers rather than the selfish one previously only intent on his own pleasure. Bryden achieves the difficult balance between Fanny’s softness (shading into downright stupidity) and real tragedy.

Of the principal characters, Stephen Billington as William Boldwood has the most difficult task. He’s a prosperous farmer of good family, and one used to having his own way, so we are predisposed not to like him very much. Billington wisely plays him straight, so that when he finally breaks, that seems something to be pitied as well as being inevitable in the circumstance.

Gabriel Oak, as his name tells us (character names are very important in this story) is the person born to support others, even at a cost to himself. Phil Cheadle allows him the unexciting solidity which explains why his fellow farm workers accord him respect and a natural leadership as well as the true passion underpinning his feelings for Bathsheba.

With minimal props and the multi-layered setting, the action moves quickly and with a ritual fluidity born of Georgina Lamb’s direction of movement. This includes country dance elements as well as mime. Overall, it’s a staging of a novel which works extremely well in its own terms, and far better than did the star-cast film version.

– Anne Morley-Priestman