Charlotte Mooney on Tess at MimeLondon and Manipulate Festival

Tess promotional image. Photo: Kie Cummings

Classic literature and circus collide in TESS by contemporary circus company Ockham’s Razor, a ground-breaking adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s classic tale of power, loss and endurance which opens this month at MimeLondon before moving to Edinburgh’s Manipulate Festival before continuing a national tour that takes in The Lowry in Salford, Oxford Playhouse and York Theatre Royal among a series of dates.

Against a backdrop of projections, the cast climb shifting walls and move through ropes and swathes of linen to evoke the vast landscapes and interior worlds of Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a story of striking relevance for our times in its nuanced evocation of female relationships, sexual desire, consent, privilege, and poverty.

Ahead of opening their MimeLondon run at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, we spoke with Ockham’s Razor’s Artistic Director Charlotte Mooney about the show.

Q&A with Charlotte Mooney

What can you tell us about Ockham’s Razor and your new show Tess?

We are a circus theatre company – we use the movement of circus to tell stories and make theatre from those strong physical relationships. We often work with original pieces of equipment and this design is part of the storytelling. We have been making and touring work nationally and internationally since 2004.

Tess is our first time working from a novel – it is an adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The story is told to the audience by an actor playing Tess. She tells her story using Hardy’s words from the novel while an ensemble of 6 performers re-create her memories onstage. Sometimes our actor becomes swept up by the ensemble and drawn into the action so that it is an adaption which tells the story and also deals with the act of telling, of memory, of control and of fate.

The ensemble are 6 incredibly skilled circus performers who use their strength and circus language to evoke the emotion and the physical labour of the novel. They create Hardy’s Wessex onstage wielding a series of wooden planks, shifting walls, ropes and swathes of linen to make sets that can change and unfold and which they balance upon, climb, carry and construct to become the vast landscapes and interior worlds of Hardy’s Wessex. The set works as both a literal landscape and a depiction of Tess’s inner world – a parallel which is so strong in Hardy’s writing this pinning and reflection of Tess’s experiences to the very world she inhabits.

It is a groundbreaking adaption in that it is using a new form but we have also strived to make it faithful to the novel – in terms of following the plot but also in capturing the astonishing poetry of the novel.

The cast in rehearsals for Tess. Photo: Kie Cummings

How natural did it feel to translate the novel into this bold new version?

It felt incredibly natural to us! Despite being written in 1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles still speaks to this moment in time. What it has to say about privilege, class, poverty, agency, female desire, solidarity and the need for non-industrialised agriculture are still completely relevant. It is a deeply political novel yet also pulses with such a deep vein of beauty around love and loss, heartbreak and yearning that it never feels like a polemic. Our job has been to capture both the emotional intensity of the novel and to bring it to life very clearly through the physical staging the power dynamics at play.

The huge gift of making a circus adaption is that it is such a very physical and visual book. Hardy paints this story with images alongside the deep poetry of the language and at the centre of it is Tess, a character who experiences the world physically in all her journeying, milking, labouring, desiring and battling against the fate dealt out to her.

Tess has been adapted before for TV and film but it always struck us that Tess is often presented as an oddly passive and bloodless character, her physicality was often lost in translation.

We have long experience of working with reframing the female body with circus looking at strength, capability and agency and also at danger, fear, risk and vulnerability and it is through the physical that we are wrestling with the feminist themes inherent in the novel.

How does it feel to be touring the show across the country?

As a touring theatre company we have been bringing shows to venues around the UK since 2004. Over that time we have built up a loyal audience base and it’s always really heartening to return to a town and reconnect with people who have watched our work over years.

With Tess it’s also been an amazing opportunity for us to encounter new audiences. It is so loved as novel – is such a cornerstone of English literature – that we have many audience members coming to see it because they love the book and have never seen a circus or physical theatre show before. That for us is golden as we are getting the chance to introduce our art form to new people. As Tess is also on school syllabuses we are also finding young people coming and discovering circus theatre for the first time. We have been taking workshops into schools around the country and teaching our creation methods to drama and literature students which has also been an incredible experience.

It’s also good bonding for us as a company to get out around the country – to walk the hills and towns, meet people and drink in the local pubs!

The cast in rehearsals for Tess. Photo: Kie Cummings

How have audiences been reacting to the performances?

We have been staggered by the reaction to the show. Full houses, standing ovations and 5 star reviews have been very lovely!. But it’s the little things that people say to you afterwards that stay with you longest. Someone said that for them it really captured the feeling of the novel. We were very happy to hear that as we love the novel and wanted to be faithful to the depth of it. I think the other thing that has most surprised audiences is that there is so much humour and light and shade in it which we are also very pleased about – I think people often forget that alongside being heartbreaking Hardy is very funny.

You’re taking the production to both MimeLondon 2024 and Manipulate Festival – what’s it like to be performing at these kinds of festivals?

We are so pleased to be performing this as part of MimeLondon 2024, we have performed every show we have ever made there. They were the festival that gave us our big break at the beginning and have been a constant supporter and champion of our work, we owe them so much. We are also completely chuffed to be at Manipulate Festival. It is our first time at the festival and the lineup is so exciting. We are proud to be part of the visual theatre scene to be part of a movement reimagining theatre and how we tell stories. It’s such an exciting, constantly evolving world.

Tess plays at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, London from 31 January to 3 February 2024 as part of MimeLondon 2024, The Traverse, Edinburgh from 7 to 8 February 2024 as part of Manipulate Festival, then touring nationally.

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