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TES by Steve Larkin – The North Wall, Oxford, 14th May 2015

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TES is a one man show based on a re-imagining of Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and you don’t need to have a English literature criticism module under your belt to follow the plot. Having watched Larkin perform around Oxford: I am used to his nuanced, comedic and then stab in the foot style of slam poetry so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with his take on this Edwardian, morality fable.

The small theatre with the seat places numbers set out in chalk on the floor (subsequently smudged by the amount of patrons squeezing onto the benches) and people sat sipping Prosecco (maybe as an ode to Charlotte Church) went dark and the spotlight eventually shone on Larkin. In an opening philosophical monologue introducing us to the threads of thought about the novel itself but also giving the audience information as to how Larkin himself imagined what the novel was about, exposing transparent threads of thought which knitted up throughout the performance.

We find that TES is in fact a teenage boy living in on an estate in Newcastle in the post ’00’s financial crash, his mother believes he is a direct descent of the poet Lord Byron and thus begins the chains of events that mirror the original novel. The play is gender swapped, so the rapist Alec becomes Alice , a posh teacher. The rape scene itself is no less confusing than any television adaption you’ve seen, and the contrasts between a loss of mental prison (Hardy’s version) vs. actual prison in this version seemed to meld, but I still felt a little uneasy about it until the story moved on until TES met his Angel (or Clare in this adaption). There was a thoughtful set aside scenes where TES demonstrates his fear of physical intimacy because of the rape, a lesser informed writer would have floundered the show without these details. Larkin clearly, forensically took this aspect apart.

Its not all doom and gloom though as we follow TES into the world of slam poetry (he only does it to impress the lovely Clare/Angel). Here Larkin reflects on his own experiences as a prison tutor (he wrote a show called N.O.N.C.E) and we get a couple of killer slam poems such as ‘Midas touch’ (“I’ve got the Midas touch, but in reverse”), the excellent ‘I’ve got the post colonial global economic blues’ and ‘Kevin’s a Charver’, the latter demonstrating the authoritarian voice and mob that will follow if they are given a chorus catchy enough.

Then time catches up  and we are transported to a stone circle at Glastonbury festival with plastic fantastic hippies banging drums, and a hopeful TES nearly hitting the ticker tape of redemption, but we all know what happens next.

Larkin’s performance was nothing less than I’m used to, versatile, clever and transparent in ideas.

 

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