Thomas Hardy‘s novel, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, is a time capsule of a novel, audacious at the time but trickier for modern day audiences who hope for a little more agency in their heroines. It’s a fascinating choice by Ockham’s Razor for their newest full-length show, Tessgracing the Traverse stage this Manipulate Festival.

Tess is born to a wastrel of a father and a hard-working, long-suffering mother. Having offered herself in service, she catches the eye of the rich widow’s foppish son, culminating in a badness that leaves her pregnant. She goes back home, gives birth, the baby dies. She gets a job in a dairy, and there catches the eye of the marvellously named Angel Clare, who’s all for wedding her until he discovers her ‘errant’ ways. Quickly things go bad to worse, and without offering too many spoilers, the story ends on a tragic note.

There’s a lot of plot to cover, but this is handled well by narrator Macadie Amoroso who makes excellent use of Hardy’s original text. “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk?” Tess mournfully asks her mother, newly home and pregnant. But while the story might raise questions about Hardy’s attitudes towards women, this production is ravishing.

The company have created a spectacular piece of visual theatre. Seven performers inhabit a set that looks to be no more than a few planks of wood, but these raw materials quickly form soaring hills and towering houses. Projections from Daniel Denton evoke the changing seasons in the countryside that’s so central to Hardy’s writing, while Holly Khan‘s eclectic soundscape helps to wring out the brightness in the tale alongside the grinding gloom.

For an aerial theatre company presenting a 140-minute show, there’s surprisingly little rope work. Instead, the performers leap and flip and clamber over and hang off each other (and the planks), creating an incredible fluid kaleidoscope of images to accompany the storytelling. The cyr wheel features in an apposite solo from the foppish Joshua Fraser as he tries to seduce (entrap) Tess. And only the final moments of the show contain a beautifully effective aerial rope solo from Lila Naruse.

The story may be grim but directors Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney find all the fun they can: family frolics, village festivities, a delightful dairy scene where the workers are milking the ‘cows’, and a gorgeous sequence in which Tess’ dairy-worker friends moon over Mr Angel Clare (Nat Whittingham). And there are moments of beautiful tenderness between Tess and Angel before it all goes wrong.

Ultimately, for today’s audiences, it’s hard to empathise with Tess’ terrible predicament and the undoubtedly necessary use of a narrator creates further distance from her emotional plight. But this is a breathtaking, audacious endeavour of a production so don’t be put off by the gloom.