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The joy of the new

Born of a birthday wish, the New Hardy Players have had a lot of fun and raised a lot of money, as Devina Symes explains

Norrie Woodhall is the last of the original Hardy Players: a Dorchester Drama group that was formed in 1908 to perform the works of Thomas Hardy. As a small child, Norrie would watch through a gap in the curtain as the Hardy Players rehearsed in the dining room of her home, The Central Hotel, Dorchester, for their productions. When she was older, Norrie performed in two major productions, including Tess of the D’urbervilles, in which she played, Liz-Lu, and understudied for her elder sister, Gertrude who played Tess.

The New Hardy Players, at the West Stafford home of Julian and Emma Fellowes

The New Hardy Players, at the West Stafford home of Julian and Emma Fellowes

In the autumn of 2004 Olive Blackburn and I asked Norrie what she would like for her 100th birthday the following year. Without hesitation, she asked that the Hardy Players be reformed to perform a play to celebrate her centenary. By chance soon afterwards, Harry Tilley’s 1920 adaptation of The Return of the Native came to light, which Tim Laycock re-worked for a contemporary audience. The original production had been overseen by Hardy, and featured Norrie’s sister, Gertrude Bugler, in the role of Eustacia Vye.
Finding like-minded people to join the new acting group was not challenging; word soon went round, and a band of about twenty-five people took the opportunity to help Norrie celebrate her special year. The play, which showed at four venues throughout Dorset, including the home of Julian and Emma Fellowes – the patrons of the New Hardy Players – raised nearly £3000 for Norrie’s chosen charity: Weldmar Hospicecare Trust. As well as celebrating her 100th birthday, Norrie’s wish to promote Thomas Hardy and the Dorset he made famous was fulfilled, and The New Hardy Players were born.

Mark Kelly as Henchard, the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, being scolded by Lucetta (played by Dee Thorne) in a 2009 performance by the New Hardy Players

Mark Kelly as Henchard, the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, being scolded by Lucetta (played by Dee Thorne) in a 2009 performance by the New Hardy Players

On 18 December, 2005 – Norrie’s 100th birthday – she adapted a humorous scene from Under the Greenwood Tree, in which she also played a part. In 2006 this play was chosen for the group’s second production. One of the New Hardy Players, Jennifer Bailey, adapted and directed the play, which raised a further £2500 for the Hospice. Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Norrie had been busy penning her story for some months, and in 2006 her book – Norrie’s Tale …. An Autobiography of the last of the Hardy Players – was published, with all profits going to the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust.
For some while Norrie had been keen for a play to be written about Hardy’s life; a life which both she and her sister, Gertrude, played a part in the author’s later years. Her vivid memories from that time enabled her to write the last scene of the play, A Life of Three Strands, and in which she took a small part. In order to fund the production the Players staged a programme called ‘Dorset Voices in Dorchester’, in March 2007, in which members, including Norrie, performed poems, prose and music from Dorset’s past and present.

Emma Hill as Elizabeth–Jane:  ‘Henchard’s daughter’

Emma Hill as Elizabeth–Jane: ‘Henchard’s daughter’

As well as touring A Life of Three Strands during the summer of 2007, from which another £3000 was raised, in 2008 to commemorate Hardy’s death on 11 January, the group staged the play at Athelhampton House, near Dorchester, a house that Hardy knew well. Norrie acting on stage at over 100 years old had brought a lot of coverage and publicity. Not least a request from Griff Rhys-Jones for Norrie to appear in a film he was making about the life of Thomas Hardy for the BBC. Norrie was able to go to the premiere of The Heart of Thomas Hardy in London in March 2008; her first visit since the 1960s.
In February 2008 a letter was sent to Mike Nixon, secretary of the Thomas Hardy Society, asking if they (Hardy Society) were interested in buying a painting that had once belonged to Thomas Hardy. Hardy had bought it at the sale of William Barnes’s furniture, following Barnes’s death. Mike came over to meet Norrie and brought the letter with him. Before too long it was decided that the Hardy Society, The New Hardy Players and the William Barnes Society would fundraise for this special painting, The Three Marys. A ‘Dorset Voices’ type evening was held at Stafford House, hosted by Julian and Emma Fellowes, and combined with an auction held later in the year, the money was raised and the painting has now been returned to Max Gate.

Norrie as ‘Tess’ in  1923 and, more recently, at home

Norrie as ‘Tess’ in 1923 and, more recently, at home

Since the very beginning music has been pivotal for the productions, giving atmosphere and authenticity to the group’s events. Jenny Trotman – assisted by John Foxwell and Peter Marshall – has been with us since the early days, and sources and arranges the scores for the productions,
as well as providing authentic music at the Dorset
Voices events.
Following on from A Life of Three Strands in 2007, came two of Hardy’s lesser known short stories: The Thieves who Couldn’t Help Sneezing and The Waiting Supper – which Hardy wrote at Stafford House – and both were adapted and directed by Jennifer Bailey. Norrie played the part of granny in the former play and both brought in more money for the Hospice. Then in 2009 came The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I adapted and directed. This play had been especially requested by Norrie, as the original Hardy Players did not produce it owing to a lack of men! After watching the play, some members of the Thomas Hardy Society asked whether the New Hardy Players could perform it during the Thomas Hardy Conference in July 2010, which the cast decided they would like to do, along with performing at the Lighthouse in Poole, a first for
the group.

Norrie Woodhall’s elder sister, Gertrude Bugler, in a still photograph celebrating a performance by the original Hardy Players.

Norrie Woodhall’s elder sister, Gertrude Bugler, in a still photograph celebrating a performance by the original Hardy Players.

It was during 2009 that Julia Sargent, widow of Dorset writer, Ray, offered Tim Laycock Ray’s script of Hardy’s The Distracted Preacher. Tim, who directed the play and added some marvellous music, spoke to members of the New Hardy Players about performing it in memory of Ray, which they did during the summer of 2010. With the money The Distracted Preacher brought in, the group has now raised £19,000 for the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust and a further £9000 for other local charities.
In January 2010 the Players were contacted by Dr Jon Murden, director of the County Museum, with regards to some scripts and papers from the original Hardy Players. The papers, which dated from 1908 to 1924, and which included many annotations by Hardy and Harry Tilley, looked set to go to America unless £58,000 could be raised by the end of April. The New Hardy Players offered to stage an evening at the museum – ‘Hardy’s Night: Chapter and Verse’ on 12 March, raising £4500, thanks to which, along with other donations and grants, the precious scripts were saved, and are now in the museum. As part of the programme, Norrie, who is the group’s President, had recited three poems, and the publicity this generated brought in the final amount needed, by a generous donor.
There have been so many happy events over the past five years, and the New Hardy Players look forward to many more – not least in 2011 when we perform Tess of the D’Urbervilles, another special request from Norrie, who has had such an amazing five years since her 100th birthday that she has penned her second book, Norrie’s Second Century, to record all that has happened since her centenary. The profits, as from her first book, will go to the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust.
On 18 December 2010, Norrie reached the marvellous age of 105! If you have met Norrie you will know what an inspiration she is, and everyone in the group realises what a great privilege it is to know her – a real link with Thomas Hardy who was born in 1840 – living history indeed!
For more information about The New Hardy Players, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, go to: www.hardyonline.org or email them at: newhardyplayers@googlemail.com

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