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Tess of the d’Urbervilles

by on 29 April 2018

 

At a Gallop

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

by Mike Langridge and Caroline Bleakley adapted from the novel by Thomas Hardy

The Questors at The Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 5th May

A review by Matthew Grierson

There was never any danger that Thomas Hardy’s fiction would be taken for an everyday story of countryfolk, though there is a species of tragic realism in his writing that the Questors’ fine production of Tess of the d’Urbervilles does very well to capture. Rather than emphasising the story’s distance from us in time and place, the play insists on its relevance by ensuring that the experience of the title character resonates with that of abused women today, never making it feel that this is not of a piece with the novel on which it’s based.

What also impresses about this play is how thoroughly imagined it has been as a play. It concentrates a much longer text by identifying the dramatic episodes and then articulating them with a fluidity that keeps a show of more than two-and-a-half hours remarkably pacey. The hard work of Mike Langridge and Caroline Bleakley, adaptors and directors both, is evident in the ease and lightness with which the actors are able to tell the story. So when I say most of the cast rotates, this is not just a rotation between parts or narratorial duties, but a literal rotation in sequences of dance and movement, whether a ballet of dairymaids and their milking stools or the coordinated motion of farmhands as they scythe a field. Such choreography connotes a sense of rural community, but this can be deployed just as effectively to show characters being ostracised: a man grabs Tess by the shoulder and turns her round to call her a whore, in a gesture later replicated by the other men and the women of the cast, while Angel Clare is literally shut out by a succession of householders in his search for his wife near the end of the play.

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Such movement is enabled by the simplicity of the set, with two barn-like constructions working on two levels at the rear of a bare thrust stage. Scenes are staged from the top of these or from ladders and stairs leading up to them, the lighting used adroitly to pick out the action and lend it mood, while areas below stable the cast when they’re not required. “Stabled” because most of them stand in for horses at some point: this highly effective use of physical theatre is achieved by having the principals sat on the steps as though in a wagon, holding a pair of ropes that are pulled taut by a performer several yards in front of them, who then moves from foot to foot in an audible canter. There’s no need for them to drop to all fours when they fall as easily into a believably equine manner as they do into that of another human character, and this stagecraft allows for dramatic moments such as the collision of Tess’s wagon with the mail coach in the first act. Showcasing their versatility, the cast also provide a range of creditable animal noises – chickens and cows, mostly – from the back to evoke the rural milieu.

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The energy and concentration of the ensemble is matched by that of the principals. Ella Hooper as Tess may not have to switch from part to part but covers as much ground emotionally as any of the supporting players, particularly when months have passed between one scene and the next. Hooper’s is a performance of sustained excellence, communicating Tess’s independence, her pride, terror, excitement and anguish. Victor Mellors as her “cousin” Alec meanwhile captures the smug self-assurance of this manipulative male, by turns charming, disingenuous, self-justifying and creepy. In each of his encounters with her, the tension is palpable, though their final confrontation is frustratingly offstage, overheard by townsfolk below as a recording, when it could have played out on one of the upper levels.

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In contrast to these captivating portrayals, Rory Hobson as Angel Clare, Tess’s sometime husband, lacks the intensity that would give his hypocritical self-righteousness some weight. Certainly the love scenes between Tess and Angel are tender and affecting, with Hooper subtly modulating Tess’s stand-offishness into affection. But after blithely disclosing his dissolute past to her on their honeymoon, Angel’s anguish at learning of her own misfortunes does not convince. The “romantic” music cue played on their first meeting and at subsequent beats in their relationship thus comes across as trite, and it is the necessary momentum of the narrative rather than the force of feeling that maintains the pace.

Like a runaway wagon, this pace can also carry the plot past points where it might do better to stop a while. Tess’s illegitimate baby seems to be no sooner born that it is buried, though there is a perfect piece of business when her mother (Alison Griffin) takes the swaddling in which the child has been wrapped and shakes it out to reveal nothing but thin air. (Incidentally, that’s two shows I’ve seen in one week featuring a child called Sorrow.) The brief Sorrow is harder to register still given that the staging of Tess’s rape by Alec is conducted as though she dreams it, both characters hoisted above the heads of the rest of the cast in separate attitudes of pain and power, and audience members unfamiliar with the novel may not realise Tess is pregnant until after the fact. The transition might have been clearer.

This reflects a tendency for some moments to be overstaged, as though everything that had been workshopped had to make it into the final production. After Tess tells Angel of her Sorrow, the other cast members come onstage to reconfigure their positions, and whether this is to suggest the passage of time or the imposition of social expectation it disrupts the emotion of the moment. Other beats, such as a slow-motion fight sequence during the barn dance or the jokingly lit performer serving as a portrait of one of the d’Urbervilles, while accomplished, seem likewise unnecessary.

By contrast, much of the staging is simple and unfussy in its elegance – viz. the horseplay, or when the dustsheets in an abandoned house become bedsheets for the reunited Tess and Angel in a stolen moment of joy before the law catches up with her. And there is definitely room for humour and happiness for the rural community among the hard work and hardships of Hardy’s Wessex. While Lucy Hayton, Maddy MacConnol and Hannah Webster as Tess’s three dairymaid friends will have their own tragedies, they twinkle with adolescent delight as they talk about Angel and vie for his affections.

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It is by conjuring this sense of community in all its complexity from a relatively small cast that Langridge and Bleakley make the tale of Tess both singular and typical, an accident on the road that is evident to all but impossible to prevent.

Matthew Grierson
April 2018

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

 

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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