It’s not often that classic literature is presented on stage through the medium of circus. While both forms of entertainment were popularised in the Victorian era, the brash and somewhat unsavoury world of circus feels an unlikely bedfellow for the more scholarly pursuit of reading. But the emergence of serialised novels courted controversy in that era, with Victorian critics concerned about the corruption of the working classes, particularly women. And with authors such as Thomas Hardy pushing against these boundaries, allowing readers to escape into their imagination, perhaps the novel has rather more in common with circus than you might first imagine.
Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was especially controversial, challenging views on sexual morality and religion. Partly inspired by Hardy’s experience (at age 16) of witnessing the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown for the killing of her violent husband, it’s a dark and powerful tragedy about the seduction of a young woman. Perhaps not the obvious choice for a circus production, but Ockham’s Razor is no ordinary circus company and Tess (adapted by Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney) is no ordinary take on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Fusing the original text with contemporary circus and dance elements, it’s a bold and provocative take on the classic work.
With an ensemble of circus performers comprising five women and two men, Tess immediately sets itself out as a feminist production and it absolutely delivers on this front, with the women proving themselves every bit as strong as the men. Powerful, physical stunts are made to look effortless, and fit beautifully with the traditional text to drive the narrative forward. All the circus elements have a clear purpose within this narrative, visually conveying the story as Tess (Macadie Amoroso) tells her tale. The choice to have Tess played by two performers (with Lila Naruse taking on the more physical elements of the role while Amoroso narrates) works very effectively to tie together the different art forms.
Everything about this production blends together seamlessly to create a stunning show, with powerful choreography from Nathan Johnston, and an evocative soundscape from composer and sound designer, Holly Khan. Projections by Daniel Denton add to the visual feast, complemented by light design from Aideen Malone. Tina Bicât’s set and costume design are fantastic, utilising ropes and wooden scaffolding to foreshadow Tess’ demise from the very beginning. Wooden scaffold boards are also incorporated into the circus performance in seemingly endless, innovative ways.
It’s very much an ensemble piece, with much of the circus work involving group acrobatics but there are also some brilliant individual skills on display. Joshua Frazer is menacing as Alec D’Urberville, enticing Tess with a mesmerising cyr wheel routine. The sound design in this scene is exceptional, as is the costume design, both of which clearly highlight the imminent danger. Despite the many ropes hanging from the ceiling, a clever directorial decision is made to keep aerial circus work until the very end, with a striking solo performance from Naruse.
The darker elements are handled with great sensitivity; they are suggestive and fleeting rather than overt. Despite the dark nature of the piece, there are also some brilliant comic moments offering light relief and a chance to break the rapturous silence.
Unlike traditional circus, the narrative means no applause on the sorts of tricks that would normally produce a raucous audience response, although there were some moments where an impressed group of teenagers couldn’t help but vocalise their appreciation on press night. Indeed, perhaps the greatest indication of the success of this show was its effect on a large school group, who came in noisily despite the best efforts of their teachers, but were reduced to silent awe within about 30 seconds of the show starting. We’re pretty sure that Tess dispelled any thoughts they might have of Victorian literature being boring!
Overall, Tess is a brilliant, boundary-pushing piece of work that beautifully captures the spirit of Hardy’s classic tale in a way that he undoubtedly never envisaged but of which he would surely approve. Circus and classic literature may well be an unusual combination but we would very much like to see more of this!
Tess played at London’s Peacock Theatre from 31 January to 3 February 2024. We received a complimentary ticket to the press performance on 31 January.
Tess is now touring to venues across the country.There are also free educational packs available that feed in to the GCSE / A-Level syllabus.
Article header image credit: Kie Cummings