WEST-GALLERY WIZARDS: England’s Mellstock Band bring Hardy’s world to life.
"At first blush, Thomas Hardy seems an unlikely figure to associate with Revels." With due respect to Revels artistic director Patrick Swanson's program statement, this Hardy fanatic of almost 50 years begs to differ. To be sure, as Swanson continues, Hardy "is not an obvious recruit for a hanky waver in 'The Lord of the Dance' ": this is the pointedly agnostic Victorian novelist whose "President of the Immortals" made sport of Tess Durbeyfield. Yet even Hardy's late (1915) Christmas poem "The Oxen" is less about unbelief than about hope. And his detailed — and loving — observation of the Christmas traditions of his native Dorset in Under the Greenwood Tree and The Return of the Native is perfect for Revels. Throw in a guest appearance by England's superb Mellstock Band, who've dedicated themselves to the instruments and the music of Hardy's time, and you have a fabulous 38th annual Christmas Revels (December 18-22 and 27-30 at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre). Even "The Oxen" turns up.
The setting is taken from Under the Greenwood Tree: the fictional village of Mellstock on Christmas Eve, with the Mellstock Quire preparing to sing carols outside the schoolhouse and the new schoolteacher, Fancy Day (Mary Casey), catching the eye of our hero, young Dick Dewy (Mayhew Seavey). Dick hasn't the field to himself, however: Parson Maybold (Tim Sawyer) and rich Farmer Shiner (Richard Snee) also fancy Fancy. What's more, they're looking to replace the Quire's west-gallery church music — part-singing with instrumental accompaniment — with an organ, which Miss Day just happens to play. Should the old give way to the new?
The Quire move on to a Christmas Eve party at Farmer Shiner's, where the sharp-eyed will note that Fancy, after initially being led out by Shiner, is secured by Dick for the Portesham Feast Dance. Thereafter, Dick's pretty much on his own, as the music takes center stage, "the songs and tunes of country church bands and choirs of the 18th and 19th centuries," as Mellstock Band leader Dave Townsend describes it in his program note.
And the Mellstockers — Townsend on concertina, Charles Spicer on oboe, Tim Hill on clarinet, and Phil Humphries on serpent (an ancestor of the ophicleide and the tuba) — set the tone for this hearty, robust, even raucous "country psalmody." There are hymns and carols in a driving 4/4, like an Irish reel, or a swinging 6/8, like an Irish jig — dance rhythms that some church parsons might have found too hearty, too robust. The tunes recall their American shape-note cousins, people's tunes, easier to sing and part-sing. Revels lets us hear the 6/8 "street version" of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" before doing the familiar tune. And when the scene shifts the next morning to church, Fancy lets the Mellstock Quire do "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" their way. No need to choose when you can have both.
The dramatic highlight of every Christmas Revels is the mummers' play; this one is adapted from Hardy's own version, with appropriate casting: Dick as St. George, Parson Maybold as Father Christmas, tremulous Quire member Thomas Leaf (Barry Reardon) as the Don Knotts–like Valiant Knight, Dick's father (Walter Locke) as the Turkish Knight, Farmer Shiner as the Doctor. The usual Revels shenanigans are out in force: a snippet of "Rule Britannia" here and the Schindler's List theme there, the problem of how to pay the Doctor when "My stocks have crashed, my bonds are junk/And my retirement fund has shrunk." The Saracen turns out to be Quire member Michael Mail (Arthur Munisteri) pushing a wheelbarrow "armed" with four rakes to suggest a laborer-replacing threshing machine — yet another wry look at "progress." This Wessex Christmas might not make Thomas Hardy believe in God, but I bet it would make him believe in Revels.