The company Ockham’s Razor takes its name from a principle devised by the medieval philosopher, William of Ockham. Very simply, it posits that, given the choice of two explanations, you should always choose the simpler one. It is sometimes known as the “law of parsimony”: the razor shaving away the unnecessary to present the essence.
And that is exactly what the company has done with Thomas Hardy’s greatest heroine, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, in Tess, currently at the Peacock Theatre. Now, given that the Peacock is part of the Sadlers’ Wells stable, you might imagine that this is a dance company – and certainly there is dance involved in the production (there’s a particularly delightful harvest dance bathed in golden autumnal light). However, Ockham’s Razor defines itself more as a combination of contemporary circus and physical theatre. Above all, though, they are master story-tellers.
Tess’s story is one of terrible injustice and it has been told many times. Hardy’s simple country girl is seen here, though, as far more than a vulnerable victim. She is a woman of extraordinary resilience, with huge depths of emotion that burst out at moments of joy (when she marries Angel Clare) and despair (when she is left to baptise her baby, Sorrow, herself). On stage, she is played by both Macadie Amoroso, who narrates the story in Tess’s own clear voice, and the spellbinding dancer, Lila Naruse.
Hardy’s novels are themselves elemental and physical, so this is perfect material for these performers. With little in the way of props other than a few planks of wood, they build houses and gallows, a horse or a coffin and recreate Tess’s difficult journeys as they become the roads that lead to her eventual ruin. They create a milking parlour from airbags, they somersault and cartwheel across the stage, they emerge contorted into backbends, they carry each other on their shoulders, aerialists dance on their ropes (including Naruse in the devastating finale). There are moments of immaculate timing when balance is everything and the strength of these performers and the undoubted trust they have in each other is remarkable – you know it’s key here when in the opening moments Amoroso falls from a high platform into the arms of those below.
Aside from the two Tesses, there are five further performers on stage all playing a multitude of parts and displaying a multitude of skills. Lauren Jamieson is an aerialist and acrobat, Victoria Skillen is a former gymnast turned circus performer and Leah Wallings is both dancer and acrobat. Nat Whittingham makes Angel Clare a touching figure, whose pride and jealousy is finally overcome in a last heart-breaking dance with Tess. As the villainous Alec d’Urbeville, Joshua Fraser dominates the stage, hypnotic inside his vast rolling hoop (cyr wheel) which finally rolls free across the stage until Tess is caught in its ultimate entrapment and the wheel clatters to the floor ominously encircling her.
The set and costumes by Tina Bicat are disarmingly simple and, behind, Daniel Denton’s videos evoke Hardy’s Wessex. The joint directors, Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney, have created (with the help of Holly Khan’s score and Nathan Johnston’s wonderful choreography) a piece that is mesmerising, by turns uplifting and joyful, or desperately moving. An utterly authentic and spellbinding Tess.
At the Peacock Theatre until Saturday 3 February and then on tour. For dates and venues, and for bookings, please visit www.ockhamsrazor.co.uk.
Photos by Kie Cummings