Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” may conjure images of high school classes and the longing for lunchtime. But the saucy 14th-century tale caused quite a scandal in its day, and the new stage adaptation which ended its run at the American Repertory Theater on March 17, preserves all that cheeky flair.
“The Wife of Willesden,” written by the incomparable Zadie Smith, retells The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and in verse no less. The tale is bawdy. To begin with, the narrator delves into her many marriages and the sexual activity that came with them. Chaucer uses this to probe the inequity in women’s lives during a time when their relationship with a man only identified them.
Unfortunately, the themes are still very applicable. Repositioned in contemporary England, Alvita, the new narrator, describes her five marriages with a feminist cry for sexual and marital equity. What’s remarkable about this story is that, though it’s been slightly reworked, the themes and structure remain very much the same. It highlights how ahead of its time Chaucer’s tale was when it fits so seamlessly into our contemporary moment.
Smith calls this play a work of almost direct translation. The book version, she says, is a line-for-line translation. The stage show has been adapted a little further to shorten it and make it flow more realistically when spoken aloud. She uses contemporary language and shifts settings and characters, but the cadence, verse, and story are almost untouched.
There are a few key ways in which the script differs from Chaucer’s structure. In the original work, this is a monologue solely by one character, she mentions other people, but they don’t necessarily actively participate. In “The Wife of Willesden,” these characters come to life and join in the action in Alvita’s telling of the story. This brings a new dimension to the presentation.
The hilarious comedy is only 95 minutes, and they fly by with the energy and verve of Clare Perkins, who plays Alvita. A strong supporting cast uses on-point physical and verbal comedy to bring the show home, notably Ellen Thomas, who plays Alvita’s scolding, church-going aunt, among other characters.
One of the most important elements of Alvita and her historical counterpart is that they’re wholly human. Though this is an instance of a woman getting space to speak in a world that doesn’t always allow that, Alvita is no angel. Some pieces of her story are uplifting, revolutionary, and accurate, but at other times she’s self-deceptive and morose. This is a crucial reminder that women’s stories do not have to be perfect and angelic to be told. They are significant merely in their existence.