theatre review | Read in About 2 minutes
Published 14 Aug 2015

Steve Larkin's reimagining of Tess of the d'Urbervilles relocates the story to the north of England and turns the eponymous Tess into a teenage lad, Kes (short for Kestor; the show's title refers to the Times Educational Supplment). Growing up in a poor, underserved community, Kes's life is shaped by the people and political initiatives that conspire to keep him in his place.

In its depiction of social determinism the aim here is to draw parallels between the gendered entrapment of Hardy's heroine and contemporary working-class life. As such, the villains of the piece are the poorly thought-out educational initiatives that hamper Kes's schooling and the prejudiced justice system that blithely sends him to jail. The voices of these forces are tellingly performed by Larkin as posh, and these contrast effectively with the northern English tone that represents the ordinary and everyday.

But the politics of the original are lost, not least because of the gender swap. Where Hardy's novel can be read as feminist in its exploration of misogyny, Larkin's women are the cause of Kes's problems; that is, of course, until an angel comes to save him. Worse, while Larkin embodies many supporting characters, Kes is instead predominantly explained to us via a narrator, rendering him pretty voiceless throughout.

It is poetry that saves Kes, and it is his poetic vision which we're invited to find redemptive. But this renders the whole oddly conservative, especially as Kes's most successful poem skewers the poor. It seems the underprivileged may speak only to reject and demonise those they leave behind.