The Wife of Bath's Tale Reimagined
by Zadie Smith
“The shock never ends when women say something usually said by men”
Alvita, the Wife of Willesden
Almost two years to the day after it was first announced, Zadie Smith’s adaptation of Chaucer arrives at the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn. So much has happened in that time that we are lucky to have it at all. Respect to everyone involved in bringing this powerful piece to life.
This production shouts, Theatre is Back! And we roar our approval for that but also because The Wife of Willesden, is a brilliant piece of staging. Ten actors take 25 parts (or perhaps 46, according to the Programme notes) in a set reproducing the Sir Colin Campbell pub complete with tables, punters and more spirit bottles than you can shake a stick at – if that’s your idea of fun.
Like Emma Rice’s legendary 2018 adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children this play is a celebration of theatre itself with the mood dial set at Wild Good Time and the speed at Catch Us If You Can. The Company, Director and Movement Directors show just what they can do in a confined space. Presumably with a team of unsung heroes is hard at work backstage, handling props and costumes. Though a sparkle jacket is enough to turn one husband into an evangelical minister, a tin tray turns another into a saint, and a simple turban conjures up the Author herself, who is dragged away as she tries to apologise for her career. It’s almost a relief to find they’re human after all when a lock of hair gets caught in a veil and lands on the stage. Unless that was deliberate….
With Clare Perkins’s Alvita anchoring the piece with an unstoppable torrent of words – until Queen Nanny gives her the evil eye – and razor-sharp support from the cast, Alvita’s Husbands groan and flinch as she exposes their shortcomings (word used here in a technical sense) and twerk at her command. The Wife of Willesden drives on with tremendous verve, invention and dirty laughs, only slackening as we shift gear into the Tale. “Don’t worry,” we’re told. “There’s not much more. You’ll still get home in time.”
Except… Is it too entertaining? Stretches of adapted Chaucer rush past with cameo flourishes, punctuated by disco numbers, mime and simulated sex, that tend to distract from the text. When darker notes arrive late in the play – a rape, domestic violence – they are almost submerged by the hour-long up-beat crescendo that precedes and struggle to engage. The spectacle and high adrenalin levels don’t allow reflection. Which is fine for a panto, but it does divert attention from issues with the original text.
Another Chaucer Tale – The Clerk’s , borrowed from Boccaccio – deals with the sufferings of Griselda. A historic justification for this dark story is that she is the epitome of the Christian Virtue of Patience. Today it looks much more like a piece of sadistic misogyny
Zadie Smith’s Alvita wouldn’t hesitate to denounce that as Church nonsense designed to keep women in their place. But there is a similar duality in the original Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Is Alys/Alyson, a role model for women or a warning to men? She might be seen as an early feminist, asserting herself in a masculine world. A sceptic who seeks freedom by refusing to be defined and controlled by any Authority of Man or Church. But she is a wealthy woman and her own independence is achieved at the expense of others, whom she boasts about humiliating and controls with threats, lies, deceit. Arguably this manipulative Alys is more ruthless capitalist than liberator, accruing wealth and power solely for herself.
Yet large chunks of her Control Your Man toolkit are given to Alvita to voice without apparent irony or comment. Marry for money, Treat them mean, Deceive them, Shame them, Make them work hard at sex, (which for her appears to be exclusively heteronormative). Above all, Take control. She nearly loses control over the Fifth husband, but finally breaks him and takes it back.
“I hate anyone who tries to rein me in,” she says. But gives detailed advice on exactly how to do the same thing to others. She also talks of restorative justice, but where is justice for the rape victim in her own tale? She simply disappears from the action, collateral damage in another woman’s power play.
So while The Wife of Willesden may look like a fun pre-Christmas treat there does seem to be something very hard at the heart of it.
The Wife of Willesden
Adapted by Zadie Smith from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Designer: Robert Jones
Movement Design: Celise Hicks
Lighting Designer: Guy Hoare
Composers and Sound Designers: Ben and Max Ringham
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes without an interval
Booking to 13th January 2022
269 Kilburn High Road
London NW6 7JR