A dramatic opening of a young woman climbing a scaffold to be hanged highlights the essence of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles. This original conception by contemporary circus company Ockham’s Razor whittles the novel down to its core with the plight of Tess portrayed through a bold array of dance, visual displays of acrobatic skills and narration.

Hardy’s tale of the fates, rape, sanctimoniousness and murder in the nineteenth century West Country is well known: A young girl’s life is fouled up by men’s double standards of sexuality wherein a man can have sex with no repercussions, but a woman’s life is ruined because of the importance a Victorian society places on her virginity.

The plot is divided into seven parts starting with ‘The Maiden’ (virgin) and her downfall, through a fifth part, ‘The Woman Pays’ (and does she ever) to the finale of ‘The Fulfillment’ – this is not just her fulfilment of briefly reuniting with Angel Clare, but the fulfilment of an unjust society demanding retribution from an innocent young woman.

A chance meeting on the road leads Tess’s family to believe they are related to their rich neighbours and sets Tess on a path to destruction.  She is sent off to beg favours from her ‘cousin’, the vile Alec D’Urberville who, with grim inevitability, impregnates her.  His woo, his show off and her seduction is conveyed through the skilful acrobatics of Joshua Frazer using a simple giant gold ring which eventually entraps her. From there her fate is sealed as she can never escape the path into which she has been drawn.

There is a Spartan set which reflects the Hardian preoccupation with the helplessness of the human condition. The amber lighting gives a glow to the production of the unfulfilled promise of a cosy life in the countryside, thanks to Aideen Malone’s lighting design. Wooden planks are used in an amazingly versatile way –they serve as the countryside, a table, a horse, a house. The cast clamber over them as they climb fences, and balance on plank sides to cross rivers.  Set designer Tina Bicât deserves an accolade not only for creativity in her invention but for robustness: we see the actors slotting together the outlines of a building in timber in real time on stage and the structure is strong enough to support three acrobatic cast members.  As Bicât is noted in the programme as having been designing for the theatre since 1965, it would seem a Lifetime Achievement Award is in order. All this is set against a filmed backdrop of moving colours, amoebic blobs, wheat and clouds, and finally a projection of stars as Tess climbs the ropes through her deathly universe.

Tess is realised with girlish enthusiasm by Lila Naruse who takes her character through bashfulness, timidity, shame and anger.  Nat Whittingham plays Angel Clare with sensitivity and makes us understand why Tess falls in love with him. The three dancers who play Tess’s friends (and sometimes a reflection of herself) were played to perfection by Lauren Jamieson, Victoria Skillen and Leah Wallings displaying their versatility in dance and acrobatics. The cast numbers seven but the stage is always filled with leaping life.  The energy of the Ockham’s Razor group is astonishing and Nathan Johnston’s choreography outstanding. Don’t miss the chance to see this innovative interpretation of a classic novel.