Zadie Smith’s The Wife of Willesden brings Chaucer Loudly to London
It was weird and thrilling too, as a longtime fan of the BBC radio soap opera The archers living in New York to find the much-missed Denise in Brooklyn the other night, radically changed and yet still very Denise-esque in a way. On the air Denise, efficient and direct manager of a veterinary practice who we wish she would just put it together with her colleague Alistair, was absent for some time; Their son Paul has instead moved to the fictional English rural village of Ambridge and, like his mother, has a knack for keeping Alistair and his fellow vet Jakob in line.
To explain her continued absence, we recently learned that Denise has become so in demand as a veterinary practice administrator that she has parachuted into others to lick them into shape. We miss her. In reality, in superstar novelist Zadie Smith’s debut play, her actress Clare Perkins has found another beguiling, commanding authority figure to inhabit – truly, more specifically, a dramatic experience –The wife of Willesden (BAM, through April 16), an adaptation by Chaucer The wife of Bath is set in contemporary Kilburn, north-west London, where Smith grew up and is the setting for her novels, White teeth And NW.
The play, produced in association with ART, premiered in 2021 at the borough’s Kiln Theatre, where Smith himself took acting lessons as a child, as part of London Borough of Brent’s appointment as the Capital’s 2020 London Borough of Culture. At Every Level it sounds like a very personal celebration of the polyphony, energy and diversity of Smith’s setting.
Designed by Robert Jones, the set is a gigantic pub named Colin Campbell with several, to the point, English pub lighting fixtures hanging surreally from the rafters. Some spectators sit on the stage while the actors circle them. For its New York debut, all viewers are given a glossary of British words and phrases and Jamaican idioms that may be unfamiliar to American ears. Smith calls the dialect of the play “North Wheezian”.
Perkins plays the siren-red clad Alvita, Mrs. von Willesden – instead of Chaucer’s Alyson – as a woman who has wholeheartedly and defiantly lived her own life: witty, snarky, sexual, intelligent, survivor, a queen. She defiantly guides us through a life of rollercoaster personal drama, accepting absolutely no nonsense from any of the five men she’s married, including a husband who is abusive.
In many ways this is a faithful adaptation of Chaucer, written in couplets, albeit with modern refinements. Instead of a pilgrimage to Canterbury, this is a gritty pub crawl through modern-day London, starring characters like a pastor, played by George Eggar, and a bailiff, played by Andrew Frame. She and other characters played by Marcus Adolphy, Troy Glasgow, Claudia Grant, Nikita Johal, Scott Miller, Jessica Murrain and Ellen Thomas – a mix of age, gender and ethnicity; a mini London melting pot – are as lively and engaging as Perkins.
Drawing on Chaucer, there’s plenty of contemporary music and a particularly memorable all-male dance sequence to Cardi B. The virtuosity of Smith’s rhymes is vividly displayed; and the actors alternate between time periods (up to the Jamaican 18th century).th Century folklore), characters and myth-based stories about misogyny and female strength.
Yet despite the energy of the actors and all the efforts director Indhu Rubasingham has made to inject action, the story’s narrative shifts feel too far-reaching and pulls us away from Alvita. This is an attractively written essay and treatise about a woman and women’s independence and insistence on freedom, but as a fully coherent piece of theatre The wife of Willesden is rather an arduous effort, notwithstanding the double dazzle of Perkins’ performance and Smith’s writing style.
We lose sight of the supporting characters too quickly, and Alvita herself disappears towards the end of the show — necessarily to keep up with Chaucer’s bizarre closing sequence, in which an old witch sexually and romantically imprisons a young man. Chaucer also structurally loyal, The wife of WillesdenThe prologue of is stretched out and takes up more than two-thirds of the show – Alvita pokes fun at its detailed story itself and assures the audience not to worry, the performance is almost complete.
A meta feat is Jessica Murrain playing “author” and Smith being able to apologize for causing offense and having perceived flaws in her work, cheekily charming the audience at the beginning and end when everyone’s dying in the final moments Words loud and exuberant are replaced by the joys of singing and dancing.