Planks form an integral part of the set creating interpretations of landscape and feeling.

 Pictures: Kie Cummings


Coventry Belgrade


Ockham’s Razor poses a delightful dilemma with its version of Hardy’s classic; are we witnessing circus, or perhaps contemporary dance? Is it the ancient art of storytelling or merely a new way to perform drama? Maybe it is everything at once in what is a captivating and innovative piece of theatre.

The idea of two Tesses is inspired. One, Macadie Amoroso, as the narrator, telling the story almost in bullet points, the other, Lila Naruse, acting out the role of Tess Durbeyfield

And all around them a ballet of movement from a cast who create magic with nothing more than planks and acrobatics to tell the story. Lauren Jamieson, Leah Wallings and Victoria Skillen, play  friends and Durbeyfield parents while Joshua Frazer plays the villain of the piece, Alec D’Urberville with some, incredibly flexible, style.

His mastery of the Cyr wheel as he sets out to impress Tess is simply brilliant, and that is pure circus defying all the laws of physics and motion.

His ravishing of the young Tess is implied rather than portrayed, an event which is to colour the entire story which cleverly follows the episodic nature of Hardy’s 1891 novel, originally, as with so many Victorian novels, published in serial form in an illustrated newspaper. The sexual content, incidentally, causing some degree of outrage at the time.

Whether it was force or seduction was never clear in the novel, which perhaps said more about the censorship Hardy faced to get his novel published, but the result was just the same no matter how it came about. Tess was pregnant.

The death of her sickly child Sorrow, the following year is handled sensitively and it is strange how the portrayal of the death of a child, particularly a baby, seems to quiet an audience in a moment of reflection.

With no child in tow, Tess has an uneasy freedom until she spies Nat Whittingham’s gentleman farmer Angel Clare and love is in the air, as are the cast most of the time.

Now love and marriage might go together in the song but Sammy Cahn never got to the True Confessions bit in his lyrics and when a devastated Angel hears Tess’s tale of past woe he can’t cope and leaves after a tortured, emotion filled dance of despair.

tjree up

Angel finds three into one does go . . .

Alec takes his chance, Angel thinks again, and if you don’t know the story, let’s just say it gets a bit messy from that point on and . . . well, without giving too much away, Tess’s fate is cleverly implied with a gallows’ setting leaving Tess on an empty stage with a slow, deliberate performance on an aerial rope set to Holly Khan’s mournful music.

The music, incidentally, being part of the performance, setting moods and themes at times echoing Bluegrass, at times a ceilidh band, at times mournful Irish laments.

Behind we have abstract video images from Daniel Denton which help to guide our emotions in the right direction but the bedrock of the performance is the set from Tina Bicât, who also designed the authentic looking costumes – not that I am an expert on poor West Country rural fashion of the 19th century,  but they looked the part, which is what matters.

The set is an abstract affair, with a wall of misaligned planks at the rear and fabric festooned ropes that created ragged pillars stage left and right or could be pulled out to create a criss-ross of shapes.

Into that are introduced planks and boards where Nathan Johnson’s choreography comes to the fore. Complex does not even cover the half of it with planks as slides, steps, hills . . . Victoria Skillen as father John Durbeyfield’s walking on two hand held planks was just mesmerising to watch.

There are some lovely touches of humour as well, such as the cow milking scene – complete with sound effects, or Angel’s moment of chivalry as he carries the young ladies, including Tess over the flooded stream – three at once at one point!

With the balancing and climbing on hand held planks, the stage high towers of planks and, more terrifying, of people standing shoulder on shoulder, three high, along with acrobatic moves, tumbles, twists and flips at every turn, there is also the constant element of danger. 

The action is worth seeing alone, but as we said at the start, the idea of the narrator is inspired, almost storytelling with instead of an illustration behind, a full animation, but within all that was the one criticism, sound.

Tess’s words were too often lost, even when not sharing space with music, a better mic or more volume was sorely needed. Her words in the final telling scene with narrator Tess off stage and animated Tess in her aerialist death throes on her rope were little more than a noise in the distance, which is a pity.

 You heard and saw enough to get the gist of what was going on, and Tess spoke clearly when you could hear her, but just that bit more volume to draw us in that bit more would have worked wonders - and added that extra otherwise richly deserved star.

That does not take away from what is an innovative, fascinating and quite stunning production telling a classic story in few words, through the medium of circus, dance and old fashioned storytelling. Circus, dance, drama . . . who cares. Just watch, marvel and enjoy a wonderful piece of theatre and hope that there is more planned in the pipeline. Directed by Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney this clever telling of Hardy’s tale runs to 12-04-24 then on with its tour.

Roger Clarke


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