Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy, adapted by Michael Fry
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Redgrave Theatre, Bristol

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Hardy’s heart-breaking epic about the fall of a young dairymaid was adapted for the stage by Michael Fry in the 1990s. Now Bristol Old Vic Theatre School have revived the play for their summer tour of the West Country. It’s true there couldn’t be a more appropriate part of the world to tour the piece, visiting as it will, if not Hardy’s fictional Wessex, some similar places. But is there a danger in adapting treasured classics for the stage, especially ones with such breadth of wide-open space, as Hardy’s books? If there is, it’s one which is swiftly overcome by Suzy Catliff’s sensuous, simple production, with its Greek-style chorus who come together as an ever present mass of storytellers, reminding us of the fiction we are occupying. With all sound effects, music and settings, created live onstage, this piece opens up a small, designated white-ish staging space into a dairy farm, a dilapidated mansion, even a threshing machine.

The most striking feature of the piece is that there are three Tesses, representing different stages of the young woman’s life; her journey away from her family to claim kin with Alec D’Urberville and the subsequent events that dog her from thereon in (played by Katie Moore); the blissful interim at Crick’s dairy where she falls in love with Angel Clare, finding temporary respite from her past (Tala Holmes-Gouveia); and the final, devastating downturn that comes with her abandonment (Nora Wardell). As well as providing a shared experience of womanhood, rooted in the likelihood that it could have happened to more than one woman back in Hardy’s day, this also diffuses the ‘special’ quality Tess the character has, to a variety of ‘special’ qualities present in each woman. Although the actresses create a fluid sense of continuity, each has a different ‘spark’.

There isn’t a standout member of this ensemble cast. They work harmoniously together, coming in and out of their various central and supporting characters to form a chorus that frames the action with its looming presence, even the most intimate scenes. Whether it’s a single actor downstage providing the sound of a harnessed horse with jingle bells, or the whole company crowding in ominously as Tess faces her most torturous encounters, the chorus create a pervading sense of fate and inevitability. This is heightened by two decisions: the first, probably Fry’s, to defer to passages of Hardy’s text at the climactic moments, delivered by one or two words per chorus member in continuous flow; and the second, a sinister humming which emerges at the end of each ‘phase’, and is oddly reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s There Will be Blood score, contributing the same discordant alien effect. Fatalism also comes in the flashes of red which pepper Andrea Montag’s costumes and the red shawl each Tess dons, in tribute to Hardy’s pervading use of the colour throughout the novel.

But the sense of chorus, though ever-present, is not so meta-theatrical that it obscures a natural simple sense of storytelling and realism. Indeed, seeing Alec D’Urberville away from Hardy’s descriptions of twirling moustaches and fire-lit pitchforks, and in the hands of Oliver Hoare’s brusque, nouveau gent takes him out of the realms of demonic pantomime villain, and into something more truthfully sinister: a man with a sense of entitlement frustrated at not getting what he wants.

Creative sound design goes a long way to creating a sense of setting, especially in the contrast between the Cricks’ dairy and Flintcombe Ash. While the use of cow hides draped over ropes is charming, it’s the quiet swish of their tails and the merry chatter of the farm that gives the scene its warm relaxing feel. Similarly, chunks of stone continuously rapped together give Flintcombe Ash its cold hardness. Sound also comes in the form of songs, not musical interludes but background ballads or ditties which frame scenes. At times they remind us, with their haunting lyrics, of the cruelty which befell more women than just Tess, and at others, such as the quiet humming of ‘Abide with Me’ in her final hours, they provide a beautiful tragic backdrop.

It’s a combination of factors, creative staging, thoughtful casting and subtle effects that make this production the success that it is. It’s hard to come to stage adaptations of beloved novels with an open heart, but even the most die-hard Hardy purists will surely have theirs prised open by such a sensitive, honest piece.

Redgrave Theatre 6-9 May, then Bristol Old Vic Studio 16-20 June, then touring until 2 July

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester

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