In Review

The Wife of Willesden: Zadie Smith’s ‘rambunctious’ reworking of Chaucer

Kiln Theatre production is a ‘stunning piece of freewheeling stagecraft’, said The Times

Zadie Smith’s “inspired” reworking of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a “gloriously staged” triumph, said Susannah Clapp in The Observer.

For this, her debut play, she has moved the tale itself from the court of King Arthur to 18th century Jamaica. And she has shifted the setting of its lengthy Prologue – in which our lusty heroine “describes how she bamboozled her five husbands and kept their peckers up”, while decrying those who judge her (priests in the original, “slut shamers” now) – to the boozer across the road from the theatre, in the novelist’s home borough of Brent.

Robert Jones has turned the auditorium into a pub-cum-cabaret space, where “light bounces off shelves of bottles” and the “punters – from church, temple, mosque, shul and utter godlessness – jostle to tell their stories”.

I feared a “clever-clever” Chaucer pastiche, said Clive Davis in The Times. Instead, Smith has delivered a “stunning piece of freewheeling stagecraft”: this is a “glorious” show which proves that a 14th-century work “can still speak to a modern public without the help of footnotes”.

Credit for that must go partly to Smith’s “incantatory” adaptation, which nimbly weaves the old with the new, but the success of the night also depends on a “magnificent” central performance from Clare Perkins as the Wife – here called Alvita.

Perkins “plays a belter”, agreed Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail. She “sets all before her ablaze with a bonfire personality”, as she “shifts effortlessly through the gears” – “daring, dismissive, doting, devious and very randy”.

Yet the real “delight” of the night, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph, is the way Smith has “honoured the source in terms of its poetic verve, answering Chaucer’s couplets with ingenious rhymes of her own”, and creating a “continuum” of female expression across the centuries. This “rambunctious” show establishes her as a “first-rate dramatist” and – at just 100 minutes – “leaves you begging for more”.

Kiln Theatre, London NW6 (020-7328 1000). Until 15 January

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