Northern Broadside’s rich and ribald interpretation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, rode into Southampton last night, bringing to life the sometimes bawdy, sometimes poignant stories of a disparate group of 14th century travellers on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas.
This production, based on Mike Poulton’s faithful two-part adaptation, performed at the RSC five years ago, has been skilfully refined and reduced into a single evening retaining all of the most memorable characters and tales. The fact that at times, the performance feels overly long – just short of three hours – is due in part to the now unfamiliar language used, especially in the more complex allegories, requiring a good deal of concentration on the part of the audience.
The strong cast, of sixteen, are all excellent, and under the direction of Conrad Nelson, bring the subtlest of modern-day awareness to the six hundred year old characters, making the show more accessible to those not previously exposed to Chaucer’s work. Playing a variety of roles not limited to the “nine and twenty” pilgrims, but also the broad and lusty creations of the travellers’ imagination, the hard working cast also sing, dance and play instruments in the course of the evening.
It is a show that romps through many bawdy episodes, concentrating heavily on “swyveing” and cuckolding that was evidently rampant in the middle-ages, with a dash of nudity thrown in – one episode involving clever puppets emulating errant lovers, and a red hot poker! However, it surprises in turn, with dark and thought provoking stories, such as the Clerk’s Tale of the pure and obedient Griselde (a fine, heart rending performance by Rosie Jenkins), whose Christian constancy is tested to the limit .
The Miller’s tale allows David Newman, as the young lover, to stand out in a performance reminiscent of the posturing of a young Rik Mayall. And in her prologue on woman’s place in the world, Ishia Bennison delights as the much-married Wife of Bath. Indeed many of the pilgrims self-introductions prove more relevant today, and more effective, than the tales that they tell.
The imaginative use of wooden pallets, everyday props and clever puppetry create a striking medieval feel with music – written and arranged by Nelson – containing a mix of good humour – including an homage to the Dixieland funeral march – folk and chants. The finale, when the pilgrims arrive at Canterbury, with a dimmed stage, lighted candles and Gregorian chant reminds us of the true meaning of pilgrimage, and draws a line under the less than holy antics that have gone before.
A new audience, unfamiliar with Chaucer’s writings, may be a little surprised by the subject matter, or confounded by the prose, and this production does not quite go far enough in bridging the gap, making the tales more accessible to the “un-initiated”. However, those who know and admire the original works will find plenty to enjoy in this sensitively abridged version, which cannot be faulted.
A must see for Chaucer aficionados – but definitely leave the kids at home!