The blank, sterile corridors of Surgeons Hall are not where you might expect to find folky fun late at night. And yet, that is where Tess – a sun-kissed retelling of Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the D’Urbervilles – and the live band that accompanies it can be found. It’s a lovely 65 minute jaunt back in time, and though the storytelling may feel transient, the wonderful atmosphere and inspired performances are enough to make it a well-worthy addition to your fringe schedule.
Tess’ world is one of colour and energy, it’s pungent as soon as you enter the space
As soon as you enter the space, Tess’ world radiates from the music of the band and the atmospheric performances of the cast. Soon, we meet meet Tess and her family in their idyllic rural home, and though the company’s assertion that the production is semi-immersive is really quite optimistic, the space manages to feel full of the bubbling whimsy. The music does wonders to provide a dynamic pace, a jovial momentum that is for the most part matched by the skilful, inventive devising work of the cast. It’s a lovely, fun thing to watch the cast and band work together, but it can also feel tinged with a slightly overbearing nostalgia too – like an advert. As Tess’s tale pushes forward, the characters she meets along the way are all vibrantly awakened and portrayed by the cast with skilful, thoughtful variety. Familiar story turns are given new resonance (literally) by the addition of the band and imaginative image-making.
However, it is the story that proves Tess’ greatest thorn. The tale is one of great tragedy, heartache and injustice; in utilising it, the company have placed themselves perfectly to provide a modern, feminist perspective – post-#Metoo Tess, anyone? Yet, the more sensitive moments of the tale, where we might experience these fresh and contemporary revelations, feel weightless, surface-level investigations of actually earth-shaking actions. There is an argument that considering the graveness of the story and exploring depth has been sacrificed here in order to achieve an overall style – which in turn appears as flimsy. Not grounding the story’s twists and turns undermine its theatrical effectiveness, but not allowing the power of Tess’ many tragedies to have their days quietens the potential roar of the entire endeavour. This manifests in an ending that simply feels confusing, like a non-event, with a return to the heavy quaintness and rose-tinted nostalgia of the opening, this time backed by a slightly painful ‘happy ending’ volition.
Tess is a super production filled with exciting performances and devising work. There is so much to like here, but the lack of care towards the story sinks the piece. It’s so light and digestible that some truly golden opportunities are missed and the extremely substantial story ultimately feels lacking in substance.