Ockham’s Razor: Tess

Peacock Theatre, London
January 31, 2024

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one of the author’s best works. It’s also a masterpiece of English fiction that paints splendid pictures of the Wessex of the period. A cracking story too, so somewhat surprising that there are almost no dance productions of it.

But while dance and movement can often strip such works down to their bare essentials and ignite the emotions, this acrobatic dance and circus version by Bristol-based Ockham’s Razor suffers from a sometimes slow-paced Act I, not least when the building of the Talbothays barn, clever as it is, brings everything to a halt for a few minutes. Having said that, while the consequences of it are obvious, Alec D’Urberville’s rape of Tess is maybe too swiftly dealt with and largely left to the imagination, although Hardy too devotes surprisingly few words to it in the book. It’s just one of several places where an effective duet might have worked wonders.

Tess by Ockham’s Razor
Photo Kie Cummings

That the story is entirely reported doesn’t help either, having the effect of distancing the audience from the characters and inevitably meaning that the nuance of some of the narrative is lost.

Act II moves along much faster. Indeed, it’s a shame more is not made of the return of Angel Clare (Nat Whittingham) and the events leading up to Tess’ murder of Alec in particular.

Nat Whittingham as Angel Claire and Lila Naruse as Tess in Tess by Ockham’s Razor
Photo Kie Cummings

There are some lovely moments, though, including genuine amusement when the three lovelorn milkmaids of Talbothays sigh over Angel from their perch. The carrying of the girls and over the river in spate is also fun, if a little over-egged, its best moment being when the otherwise silent Angel protests as his hair is grabbed.

And the circus work is skilful. Joshua Fraser’s use of a cyr wheel to symbolise Alec d’Urberville’s immorality and avarice, if somewhat obvious, is nevertheless effective and very well executed. It’s rumbling to the floor sends quite a shudder. I can’t help feeling it’s just a pity that the other skills are not always as well integrated and illustrative. They do also have a habit of getting in the way of the rendering of Hardy’s text. And there is a lot of plank walking, a device used to convey travel and the passing of time.

Joshua Fraser as Alec D’Urberville in Tess by Ockham’s Razor
Photo Daniel Denton

On the subject of the text, I found Macadie Amoroso a surprisingly uncharismatic narrator and actor Tess (the role is danced by Lila Naruse). Her diction, while always audible, was sometimes difficult to hear clearly, although this could well be an issue with the sound system at the barn of a venue that is the Peacock as I understand it has not been a problem elsewhere. Indeed, I managed to totally miss Angel’s confession of his own past indiscretion, a moment that’s at the heart of the injustice and tragedy.

In all, not one for me, although it has to be said that the audience in general appeared to enjoy it.

Tess by Ockham’s Razor is at the Peacock Theatre, London to February 3, 2024, then continues on tour.

For an alternative view of Tess, read David Mead’s review from Malvern.