Derby Playhouse
Opened 23 February, 1996

As far as adapting literary works for the stage is concerned, Victorian novels often pose the greatest problems, not least in terms of cutting the frequently monstrous things down to size. How to compress such a broad canvas, such a prolonged narrative, into two and a half hours? In the case of Colin Mayes and Mark Clements's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel, the answer is not to; their Tess Of The D'Urbervilles clocks in at three hours and twenty minutes.

By focusing solely on the story of Tess herself, Mayes and Clements hack a clear and steady path through Hardy's sprawling richness. The few scenes in which she does not appear constitute only brief sidelights before she returns to take up the narrative burden. The numerous locations are accommodated well by Mayes's looming stone and timber set, which does service as a village square, a row of milking stalls, a country lane and, incredibly, even passes muster as Stonehenge in the closing scene.

The adapters' greatest obstacle is in fashioning a theatrical whole out of the book. Tess's end is undoubtedly dramatic, but in many ways is simply that an end rather than a climax. Her saga of material and spiritual hardship has little variation in tone or intensity, even during her courtship by the idealistic, priggish Angel Clare. Faced with such a consistent emotional register the audience, although it follows the story keenly, never wholly gives itself up to the tale: on Tess's murder of her cold-hearted two-time seducer Alec D'Urberville, the drip of his blood through the ceiling actually raised a muted laugh. This is a modern reaction, a reluctance fully to submit to melodrama, but Mayes and Clements are unable entirely to circumvent such defences.

As director, too, Clements is content to let the story do the work, aiming for clarity and through line rather than any great delicacy. Tara Woodward ably shoulders the heavy obligations of the role of Tess, but cannot succeed in making her propensity for suffering attractive; where a reader may consistently sympathise with her, an audience finds progressively greater difficulty in granting her that particular strain of theatrical identification. Similarly, Chris Larkin's Angel Clare is marked out from the first as hopelessly unrealistic, and after Alec D'Urberville's second fall from grace Blaise Doran so immerses himself in his character's melodramatic wickedness that he all but twirls his moustachios.

Neither a substitute for the novel nor a theatrical work in itself, this Tess makes for a long, narrow evening; it succeeds admirably in telling the story, but at the expense of both intellectual and emotional engagement.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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