Thursday, 18 November 2021

Theatre review: The Wife of Willesden

Given an extra push by the announcement, a couple of years ago, that Brent would be the London Borough of Culture*, the Kiln Theatre continues to commission hyper-local shows that celebrate the diversity and big personalities of the area. Indhu Rubasingham's latest production sees novelist Zadie Smith turn playwright, and adapt "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, into a raucous modern-day version - The Wife of Willesden. The venue's recent major refurbishment has given it a very flexible auditorium, and designer Robert Jones takes the opportunity to more or less strip out the Stalls seats, replacing them with pub tables and benches that reach right up to the edges of the stage. In keeping with the theme of staying close to home, the design is based on the Sir Colin Campbell pub, right across the road from the theatre.

Here, following Chaucer's framing device, the barmaid (Jessica Clark, practically in Bet Lynch cosplay,) invites the locals to tell their best stories. It's mostly the men who hold the stage, and the women aren't too impressed with their offerings, until Alvita (Clare Perkins) arrives.

She's called the Wife of Willesden because she's had five husbands: Three of them older, who were good men but terrible in bed; the other two younger, who were bad men but great lovers. And as becomes quickly apparent, the latter quality is incredibly important to Alvita. In a story that takes in more modern touchpoints like #MeToo and young men becoming radicalised incels, the essential battle of the sexes remains a very simple one: That 600 years after Chaucer's version, the idea that a woman wants to be in charge both in the marriage and the bedroom is still seen as a comic if not scandalous reversal of the norm.

Much of the evening is spent going over Alvita's past, particularly the death of mild-manned husband number 4 (George Eggay,) whom she quickly replaces with number 5 (Scott Miller,) an abuser she eventually manages to get in line like a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew. It takes her so long to get round to her actual story that it becomes a running gag, but when it eventually comes - an Arthurian legend transplanted here to 18th century Jamaica - the story remains very much on-theme to Alvita's personality and agenda: The Young Maroon (Theo Solomon,) condemned to death for his attacks on women, ends up finding salvation in two powerful women, Crystal Condie's Queen Nanny and Ellen Thomas' fearsome-but-fair hag of the forest.

Although Smith's White Teeth has been adapted at the same theatre before, this is the author's first time writing her own play script, and even then it seems she essentially agreed to do it by accident; fortunately Chaucer's bawdy original gives her a strong framework to stick to, down to the rhyming couplets, a few of which are original lines with surprisingly contemporary relevance (among many other interjections the actors let us know that a line about the Wife liking men black and white isn't a reference to Kilburn's diversity but a direct quote.) And although there's a dark undercurrent about sexism, abuse, and particularly "negging" a woman to control her, the overwhelming atmosphere is a triumphant one: Alvita's had as many bad times with men as good, and feels for women still going through trouble, but her own story is one of turning the tables and getting the upper hand she so stridently feels she deserves.

Perkins is of course at the heart of the play's energy, and her Alvita is an agent of chaos who creates the evening in her own image. She may be in control of her men but she's not always in control of herself, and even when she eventually gets round to her actual tale she can't help interrupting to go on a tangent about King Midas. Rubasingham takes her cue from this to make the whole production equally raucous and chaotic, with the rest of the cast jumping in and out of a variety of characters, both real and legendary. I was sitting in one of a handful of onstage seats, although to be honest Jones' design is so good at integrating into the space that you can barely see where the offstage seats end and the onstage ones begin. It all adds up to a silly and entertaining, but far from shallow evening.

(I also want to quickly acknowledge the Kiln for, alongside places like Hampstead and the Bridge, making the most effort to make audiences actually feel Covid-safe rather than just paying lip-service to it, with regular gentle reminders for people to keep their masks on in the building, and assurances about the ventilation. With the cast, who can't perform in masks, mingling to an extent with the audience, there was even an added step at the entrance: Not just a box of disposable masks, but also a staff member to politely but firmly greet anyone arriving without one, with what a shame that they'd accidentally forgotten to wear theirs but fortunately she had some right there that they could help themselves to.)

The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith, adapted from "The Wife of Bath's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer, is booking until the 15th of January at the Kiln Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*specifically London Borough of Culture for 2020 so some of these commissions have been... delayed a tad

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