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Tess | The Lowry

Ockham’s Razor’s Tess holds onto the heart- breaking core of Hardy’s novel while speaking a mesmerisingly different language. It balances – bodies taut, arms outstretched – between the familiar images and motifs of the novel, and the added physicality and poetic movement of circus performance. We follow the gentle Tess through her suffering at the hands of Alec D’Urberville (who she works for because of her family’s historical ties to a noble family of the same name), her relationship with Angel, and her interaction with the landscape; the peaks and troughs of the hills she walks mirrors the fluctuations of her own life. These fluctuations are depicted with such grace and strength in Tess.

Two performers embody different parts of Tess’s character, Macadie Amoroso as the narrator and voice, and Lila Naruse as Tess’s physical presence. It is interesting that where in the novel she was watched and described from a distance, here she is allowed to be narrator; she is watchful and voluble, and the audience’s engagement with her is characterised by closeness and intimacy. As the two versions of Tess move across the stage, sometimes converging, sometimes remaining apart, we are able to see her character with clarity. The interaction between the poetic narration and the physicality of circus performance allows Tess to take on different dimensions and qualities.

For example, we see her interaction with the landscape in a very visceral way. Every set piece, prop, costume, or movement, is culminated together, influenced by a touch or interaction to become something bigger. As Tess moves through the landscape, the performers use planks of wood as the terrain – as Naruse moved, the performers manipulating the planks would move too, always shaped and controlled by the balance of one another. Tess is moulded into the journeys she makes and the settings and characters she engages with.

It is important to draw attention to this interconnectedness, but it is also important to draw attention to the details that made this version so successful. The set and costume design by Tina Bicât, for example, fits perfectly with the grace and gentleness of the performance. A wooden structure allows for hiding, climbing, and watching - in a moment of peace for Tess, Amoroso and Naruse sit together at the top of this structure, looking down. The lighting here – by Aideen Malone – is warm and golden, and both versions of Tess bask in it. Through the perfect union of design, direction (by Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney), choreography (by Nathan Johnston), and performance – as the group balance, climb, dance, and move both with each other and with the props and sets around them – Tess elegantly depicts the beauty of the titular character’s happier moments as well as the pain of her suffering.

There were several moments when this suffering was combined with a greater sense of female community. A detail drawn out from the novel was Tess’s relationships with the women around her; in moments of extreme difficulty, Lauren Jamieson, Victoria Skillen, and Leah Wallings, as her friends, would hold Tess while they breathed together. In a beautiful sequence during Tess’s pregnancy, their graceful and sweeping movements reflected one another’s. 

The grace of the company’s movements also impacted the depictions of violence. Like in the novel, Tess’s rape is not explicit. But unlike the novel, here we can see Tess clearly, rather than being distanced from the scene through the omniscient narrator. Naruse was burdened with the physicality of the moment while Amoroso stood illuminated in the misty white light, her expressions and body language showcasing the pain and hurt of Alec’s cruelty. Naruse and Joshua Frazer (as Alec) often interacted with fabric and costumes as part of the moments of violence. His coat, for example, lies next to Tess after the rape: it is a symbol of the aftermath and the consequences of Alec’s brutality. These symbols – also including the traces of red throughout – prioritise emotional intensity rather than gratuity.

In a Q&A with the cast and creatives after the show, Jamieson commented on her hatred of Angel – an opinion I also share, and which often skews even the early moments of his relationship with Tess during re-reads of the novel and while watching other adaptations. But in this version, Nat Whittingham as Angel was able to enamour and charm the audience, making his decisions later in the story hurt even more. His early duets with Naruse were beautiful, as they moved together with perfect intimacy. 

Ockham’s Razor’s interpretation of the story’s ending beautifully represents the strengths of the entire production. It was silent, taut, and delicate. Some viewers might prefer this slowness, and the focus on Tess herself, to the somewhat alienating final moments of the novel. This version has a quality of intangibility – a heart-breaking balance between hopes and fears, fates, and reversals of fortune. Tess represents a new and exciting language of theatre and circus, used to tell the story of how Tess suffers - but still shines - during her journeys over the landscape of this ‘blighted star’. Tess is now playing at The Lowry until Saturday 17th February as part of a tour of the UK. For more information and tickets, click here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Kie Cummings and Henry Kenyon


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