Late in life, Thomas Hardy turned his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles into a play. Acted by Dorchester amateurs, it met, says the director Michael Napier Brown, universal derision. Hardy had merely placed the novel's series of events on stage. Napier Brown, who directs his own adaptation in Northampton, has gone to work with more stagecraft. Nine actors play 24 characters, each, says the director, "very rich and individual".
He denies Hardy created caricatures. "I've been listening to recordings of the 19th century Dorset dialect poetry of William Barnes - we use some in the production - and Hardy captures their spirit. It is the passsage of time that caricatures these characters."
Neither, believes the director, is Angel Clare, who marries Tess then rejects her on discovering she has had an illegitimate baby, merely a caricature of hypocritical Victorian male morality. He is, however, "a difficult character: he has a higher sense of morality which his character does not warrant". His travels to Brazil when he leaves her, then back to find her, seem excessive; "It is a literary device to make Tess's inner journey more complex." Only Alec D'Urberville, the land-owning aristocrat who seduces Tess then deserts her, is a one-dimensional character, the stage villain.
Tess herself is, as Hardy's subtitle for the novel confirms, "A Pure Woman". "Her purity of spirit is the key to her - and her own worst enemy," claims Napier Brown. "She keeps seeking the opportunity to confess the sin, as she sees it, of her past and is foiled by events till Angel confesses his past misdemeanours and gives her the chance. Which she relishes but it ruins her life."
On stage the story needs contrast of atmosphere even more than on the comparatively leisurely page; this can be found in Tess's well-intentioned parents and the milkmaids. The final scene where Tess and the now-reconciled Angel escape at night and arrive at Stonehenge gives Hardy's heroine, "ironically her happiest moment. It resolves everything: she no longer has the emotional baggage of her life - the child, Alec's insistent behaviour towards her, her parents' worry - for she has had her sublime reconciliation with Angel Clare. She is totally at peace with herself at this place of sun worship and when the sun does rise, bringing her ultimate fate, she has fulfilled herself. As she walks readily to the police who come to arrest her for killing Alec, Tess is totally at peace with herself."
January 30-February 28. Tickets: 01604 24485