Clare Perkins, Marcus Adolphy, Andrew Frame, George Eggay, Theo Solomon and Scott Miller in The Wife of Willesden
Arguably, the best way of making old texts, written in unfamiliar vernaculars, engaging to contemporary audiences is to make them funny. Yet better than simply sprinkling new jokes onto otherwise dry material is finding the comic truth of the original and exposing it for a new audience.
This is precisely what Zadie Smith has brilliantly achieved in The Wife of Willesden, a reworking of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century. This new piece was commissioned to celebrate Brent being awarded the title London Borough of Culture in 2020 (out of the 32 eligible). Hence, it is no longer set on the road to Canterbury, but in a very different destination of many a pilgrimage: the pub. Specifically, the Sir Colin Campbell pub in Kilburn – directly across the road, in fact, from the Kiln Theatre. Smith’s premise is that one evening, while she was in the pub, Polly the pub landlord announced a lock-in, during which everyone told stories. The best will receive the coveted prize of a full English breakfast the next morning, on the house – and with chips.
Already, this seems like a winning frame for a similar portmanteau to The Canterbury Tales. Yet, as the ‘Author’ tells us – Crystal Condie, playing a slightly neurotic character, recognisable as a version of Smith herself – most of the stories told were not worth hearing. The speakers were: ‘Mostly men. Not because they had better stories but because they had no doubt we should hear them.’ Yet, one story stands out to the fictionalised Smith – as the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ has to many readers of Chaucer. Here, it is told by Alvira, the Wife of Willesden – so named for her five marriages to five different men.
We spend most of the play being delighted by the Prologue, which utilises Chaucer magnificently to mount a ripe satire of the lives of present-day women, and the actions of men. Smith recognises the often-riotous comedy of The Canterbury Tales, and garnishes original jokes with contemporary references. Yet most of the political substance to the play’s critiques has its roots in a text over 600 years old; references to men’s rights activists and Jordan Peterson only serve Smith’s source with added relatability. One of the most striking – and entertaining – revisions is Smith’s retooling of Chaucer’s critique of religious hypocrisy over gender inequality (complete with wry Biblical analysis) as a rejoinder to the contemporary Christianity of Alvira’s aunt and her aunt’s preacher.
It is clearly a work of exceptional intelligence, yet Indhu Rubasingham’s production makes sure The Wife of Willesden is a pleasure to watch – with belly laughs throughout, rather than wry chuckles. When Biblical figures appear – including God, St Paul and ‘Black Jesus’ – their holiness is conveyed with a gold serving tray held up behind their heads, like a saint in a stained-glass window. Wry touches abound; in a whistle-stop tour of historical female murderers, Rubasingham dramatises Clytaemnestra’s murder of her husband in the bath with the scrapy string stabs from Psycho’s shower scene. A level of detail and care have been lavished upon the production, which the text absolutely deserves.
At the heart of this all, selling the play as the absolute triumph it is, is Clare Perkins. She is utterly compelling as Alvira, holding the audience in the palm of her hand in every moment – her comic bravado played simultaneously with something more nuanced and human. Ultimately, she makes the play feel extremely alive – as if we are in the pub with her, an illusion further sustained by Robert Jones’s remarkably transformative set.
The evening and is never anything less than engaging. However, there is the occasional longueur. Smith plays on the relative length (‘over 8,000 lines’) of the Prologue compared to the Wife of Bath/Willesden’s Tale itself. Yet though comparatively shorter, for me, it is the Tale where the play loses pace. By comparison, Alvira’s own life is just a bit more interesting.
The tale itself represents a curious challenge to the contemporary reader or listener. Like the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, there is an ostensible feminism to it – though not one exactly calibrated to modern-day sensibilities. In the original Chaucer, a queen presents a man with what is essentially a riddle – what is it that every woman wants? In return for the correct answer, he will receive a stay of execution; if he fails to answer within a year, he will be killed. Especially given the one-year reprieve, the tale reads like a feminist echo of Gawain and the Green Knight – except the punishment is not due to arrogance per se. The man is a rapist.
A cynical reading of the original Chaucer could interpret it as the story of a rapist escaping justice on a technicality, before being rewarded with a marriage to a chaste, loyal, beautiful woman. Yet Smith chooses to smooth out the harsh edges of the tale, gently meditating on the relationship of the state, prisons and capital punishment to feminist justice. Queen Nanny – as she is here – opines that ‘capital punishment will only go so far’; instead, she is interested in ‘restorative justice’. His rape of a ‘virgin, with no interest’ in him is treated as a crime not only against the individual, but against women as a whole. Thus, he is instructed to understand ‘who you hurt and why’. There begins his quest into discovering what women most desire.
Unfortunately, the quest is perhaps the least successful part of The Wife of Willesden. Perhaps the production knows this, never trying harder to engage its audience visually than here – with giant palm trees appearing almost miraculously out of nowhere, and the questing man wandering through the audience to ask if they know what women most want. Yet it feels a bit like we are treading water, the script lacking the wit and force of argument present earlier in the play.
What Smith is holding off revealing is Chaucer’s answer to the queen’s question: that women want men to ‘submit to their wives’ wills’ (as Smith writes). This neat inversion of Paul’s sentiments in Ephesians is a satisfying answer, met with a roar of laughter in the theatre. Yet this is the one place where advance knowledge of the original text hinders the play. The reveal is played quite similarly to the original – and arrived a little too slowly.
Also unsurprising is Chaucer’s sting in the tale. An old woman promises to tell him the secret if he agrees to one request from her. He agrees but does not check what she wants in advance. And so it is revealed, too late, that she wants to marry him. He reluctantly accepts, bound by his word, leading on to the final twist of the story. His wife tells him that she could transform into someone beautiful, but would be unfaithful to him, or she could remain ‘old and ugly’, though chaste. After agonising for a while, he remembers what he has learned and suggests she chooses – out of love for him. As a result, she transforms into someone both beautiful and chaste – his internal transformation mirrored by her external one. Smith has the ‘Old Wife’ transform into Alvita – with her ‘fabulous, thick, middle-aged beauteousness’. The result is a partial reworking, skewering some of the original text’s assumptions about age and beauty, while also playing out the original beats largely unaltered. Though smart choices are made – resetting the tale from Arthurian England to 18th century Jamaica, for instance – there has not been quite the same energy directed at updating this part, than there is so brilliantly at the rest of the play.
These criticisms however are slight compared to the scale of invention on the page and the stage, and the tour de force of Clare Perkins’ leading role. Smith even takes the opportunity to pre-empt and respond to criticism, in a brilliant version of Chaucer’s ‘Retraction’ – in which he accepted responsibility for various alleged failures in The Canterbury Tales and the rest of his work. Here, Smith apologises for the ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘dodgy sex’, and ‘the existential bleakness’ of respective past novels, humblebrags about setting the play in verse (‘No more couplets… That shit’s exhausting to write’) and attempts to credit Chaucer with anything we enjoyed about the experience. The posture is brilliantly in keeping with her source material and lends an already hilarious show a perfectly judged touch of the meta – never tipping into overplayed or smug. Smith’s confessions and apologies are ultimately drowned out by music and dance; she recognises her foremost purpose is perhaps to entertain, which The Wife of Willesden does in spades.
The Wife of WillesdenWritten by Zadie Smith, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Design by Robert Jones, Lighting Design by Guy Hoare, Composition and Sound Design by Ben and Max Ringham, Starring Clare Perkins, Marcus Adolphy, Jessica Clark, Crystal Condie, George Eggay, Andrew Frame, Scott Miller, Hussina Raja, Theo Solomon, Ellen Thomas
Reviewed 16th November 2021