Peacock Theatre
London

1st February 2024

Stuart Sweeney

Ockham’s Razor is a principle favoring simple solutions. Thus, before seeing Tess, I was puzzled at the rationale of a circus theatre company performing Thomas Hardy’s complex, humanitarian narrative. I am delighted to report that the production is a triumph for the company’s co-artistic directors, Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney. The decision to include much of Hardy’s words, skillfully adapted by the directors and Anne-Marie Casey, provides a framework for the production. Two performers play Tess: Macadie Amoroso delivers the elegant text and Lila Narusa brings her considerable circus skills to physically illustrate the story and the combined role works very well, although the Peacock’s sound system sometimes obscures Amoroso’s text. Daniel Denton’s abstract projections provide impressions of the seasons, the landscapes and the stars.

Ockham’s Razor TESS
Photo: Kie Cummings

The rustic West Country is brought vividly to life by Tess and her friends as they tumble and balance, often on narrow planks of wood, which provide a recurring theme in Tina Brecht’s imaginative set design. After the early accident where the family’s horse dies, Tess is sent to get help from wealthy distant relatives, also named D’Urberville. Their handsome son, Alec, played by Joshua Frazer, is introduced propelling a large Cyr metal ring mesmerizingly around the stage. Finally, the Cyr settles around Tess, and spins slowly to the ground as a premonition of the future.

Ockham’s Razor TESS
Photo: Kie Cummings

Tess and Alec leave a dance and spend the night together. And then Tess is pregnant, the gap in the narrative following Hardy’s example. After the death of her child, Tess finds work elsewhere as a milkmaid and makes new friends. Inflated bags are hilariously used to show milking and there is lively fun when the friends meet Angel, played by Nat Whittingham. He carries three of them across a swollen river and the friends dangle dangerously from a wooden frame to get a better view of him and Tess, who is entirely smitten.

Ockham’s Razor TESS
Photo: Kie Cummings

When they are betrothed, Angel confesses his affair with a married woman to Tess, who accepts his indiscretion. But when she makes her own confession, Angel cannot see the equivalence of their experiences. Angel’s aching contortions around the stage project his shock and misery. He leaves the devastated Tess for South America saying that she can only be his wife when Alec is dead.

The pace shifts up in the second half and Alec comes back into the narrative and marries Tess. But on Angel’s return, Tess kills Alec and pays the ultimate price. Tess and Angel enjoy a blissful night under the stars, but the courts find her guilty. At the end, a rope hangs down, but rather than a hanging we see Narusa using all her rope skills, as if to signify an escape from a desperate world.

One of the scenes is called “The Woman Pays” and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be seen as a remarkable precursor to feminism and equal rights. Ockham’s Razor’s Tess, both enthralled with physical prowess while movingly depicting the high and tragic aspects of Tess’s s life.