I’d been out with a friend prior to this show, and as we went our separate ways she said: ‘I hope you enjoy Tess!’ No-one has ever enjoyed Tess, I mournfully replied. But I was very wrong: everyone will enjoy Ondervinden’s energetic response to Hardy’s classic novel of misery, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
The tale is told in full: Tess’s country upbringing with her family, the rumoured familial links to the aristocracy, the harrowing encounter with her entitled and obnoxious cousin Alec, her attempts to rebuild her life, and her abandonment by the hypocritical Angel Clare. The original Tess is not a barrel of laughs, but the company have thrown something special into the mix – they’ve given themselves leave to respond to the original, and their ironic feminist commentary on the text is sharp, witty and well-aimed.
The performances are vibrant and expressive. Polly Waldron is impish yet straightforward and honest as Tess, while Colette McNulty and Emily Windham play the whole range of characters in her life. Particularly memorable are McNulty as Izzy (the lovelorn milkmaid) and the callous Alec justifying his ‘uncontrollable urges’, and Windham as the condescending Angel, and both of Tess and Alec’s mothers. Also on stage is a live band of three musicians, who make the scenes of partying in the taverns really come alive and ensure the breaks between scenes when the actors change their costumes don’t feel too long.
At first, all this fun in Tess doesn’t seem quite right. Isn’t it famously one of the most tragic books in English literature? But the balancing of exuberance, wry comment and tragedy is writer and director Elske Waite’s greatest success. All the misery is there, and is all the more moving for its contrast with the joy that Tess is capable of getting out of life with her mother and sister, or with her friends on the farm. The the three actors and three musicians manage the emotional ups and downs so that they are truly affecting without ever jarring – and it is wonderful.
There’s no need to be apprehensive about the book’s grim reputation. You will love this Tess.