Thomas Hardy's late nineteenth century novels, set in his invented region of Wessex in the South-West corner of England, and inspired by rustic social realism, present subjects that have rarely attracted choreographers. If Hardy's works are difficult to interpret in dance theatre, then how much more distant are they from the medium of circus skills?
That Charlotte Mooney and Alex Harvey, co-founders and joint directors of Ockham's Razor – surely the most enigmatic of all dance company titles – have attempted the difficult task of interpreting Tess of the D'Urbervilles through circus speaks volumes for their adventurous artistic vision although, if truth be told, their achievement in this particular endeavour is like the proverbial curate's egg (only good in parts).
The core artistic decision was to base the character of Tess on both an actor (Macadie Amoroso) and a dance/circus artist (Lila Naruse), a necessary device to convey the complications of the narrative helped by scripted introductions to each part of the novel superimposed on the backdrop. Amoroso strolled the stage with purpose and the west country burr in her accent was suitably authentic, but it came with the substantial downside of being all too often indistinct.
To their credit, the creative team did not overdo the specialist circus element although much of the movement was acrobatic, and the use of specific skills was neatly aligned to character and plot development. So, for example, when the cyr wheel was introduced, instead of looking incongruous (I suspect that there weren't too many cyr wheels in nineteenth-century Dorset) it became an excellent device to exemplify Alec d'Urberville's nonchalant, entitled arrogance, given a suitably callous portrayal by Joshua Frazer. In the novel, d'Urberville's rape of Tess happens away from any written description and here, too, it is implied without obvious onstage reference. Hardy wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles over 130 years ago, but it carries a message that is just as relevant to today's #MeToo era. Yet again, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A clever leit motif was the liberal use of seemingly rough planks of wood to emphasise the story's rustic setting. These were held by performers at different levels to provide unsecured balancing platforms for daredevil acrobacy or quickly constructed into structures that brought the element of height into the action. One of these wooden concoctions resembled the shape (although not the function) of gallows, referencing the novel's conclusion as Tess is hung for the murder of Alec. A fascinating programme note by the directors draws attention to the fact that, as a 16-year-old, Hardy witnessed – at very close quarters – the execution of Elizabeth Brown, the last woman to be publicly hung in Dorset, for killing her violent and drunken husband in self-defence. It was an injustice that apparently haunted Hardy for the rest of his life and no doubt played some part in inspiring his writing about the suffering of women – not least in his controversial portrayal of Tess as a fallen woman, wronged by men.
The story's darkness was enlivened by nuggets of bawdy humour, more the ardent adventures of Tom Jones than those written by Thomas Hardy, as for example when three women hung upside down from a wooden edifice to lust after Angel Clare (Nat Whittingham), the gentleman farmer that Tess marries. These comedic punctuations and the frequent excellence of the circus skills were highlights in a performance that was otherwise surprisingly slow, especially in an over-long first act.
Holly Khan's score was well aligned with the narrative demands, ranging from pastoral and romantic to foreboding and dramatic. Tina Bicát's set design was obviously aligned to the need to facilitate and showcase the circus skills safely and it was augmented by Daniel Denton's projections on the backdrop that conveyed the rural context (such as sheaves of corn wavering in the wind). It was effective without being overwhelming although there were times when the images seemed to blur into one another without obvious reason.
Ockham's Razor has come a long way since its formation in 2004 (I recall seeing an early show in the minimalist environment of Highgate's Jackson Lane theatre) and deservedly so since the company's artistic metier of building physical theatre laced with excellent circus skills is an exceptionally rare quality and although this show doesn't completely hit the mark, it is nonetheless innovative and – excepting the sound quality for the spoken text – very well performed by a highly skilful group of artists.
Tess is continuing a UK-wide tour with at least another dozen venues to come. Lovers of both Hardy and circus will never find a better show! Lovers of either will find much to enjoy but if you don't know the novel then a quick pre-show cramming of any synopsis (the programme sadly lacks one) will certainly help.
Graham Watts is a freelance writer and dance critic. He writes for The Spectator, Tanz, Shinshokan Dance Magazine (Japan), Ballet Magazine (Romania), BachTrack and the Hong Kong International Arts Festival and has previously written for the Sunday Express, Dancing Times, Dance Europe, DanceTabs, London Dance, the Edinburgh International Festival and Pointe magazine (USA). He has also written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge's Fifty Contemporary Choreographers.
He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics' Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and (until the war) for Balletristic in Kyiv. He was a nominee for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.