Northern Broadsides brings Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales very much to life with a great deal of lusty humour at the Liverpool Playhouse.
The sixteen-strong ensemble act out multiple roles, sing, dance and play instruments in a packed programme of several of the six-hundred-year old tales. There’s much bawdiness, simulated rumpy-pumpy, and references to nether regions. There’s even, for a brief moment, full frontal nudity, but it is all done in he best possible taste, as the late Liverpudlian Kenny Everett would have said.
It’s an action-packed show with much ribald humour and a romp through the best-known tales. In this show we see reflected myriad characters of the period - from the much-married Wife of Bath with her Prologue on women’s place in the world, to the rude Miller’s Tale with bare bottoms emulated by clever puppets and a red hot poker! We then have the Reeve’s tale with more ‘swyveing’ or cuckolding, lowering the tone even further, if that’s possible!
However, the tone changes with the Clerk’s Tale. The ever patient and pure Griselde is tested to the limits, her children taken away to be ‘killed’ only later to be put on the highest pedestal for her constancy. This heart-rending tale captivates the heartstrings but shows how hard life was for women in the patriarchal society of the middle ages It was four years ago that Mike Poulton wrote a two-part epic for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has pared the two parts down for Northern Broadsides to a one-night show of nearly three hours
Ok so it’s a tad too long, but the players are so enthusiastic and talented that one can only marvel at their vivacity and technique. To remember so many rhyming couplets in this updated version of Chaucer’s original Middle English is a feat in itself. But he has retained the rhythm and rhyme of the great poet’s original and relates the pilgrimage to Canterbury in a way that’s fresh and very entertaining. The cast’s medieval-type singing - folk tunes and chant - adds a mellow glow to the whole proceedings. There’s even the customary Northern Broadsides clog dance interwoven in one tale.
There’s much inventive use of props, be it animated pieces of cloth to represent children, or pitchforks and scythes ridden as ‘horses’.
The finale, when the cast, as pilgrims in penitent dress, arrive at Canterbury, is magical, with a dimmed stage, lighted candles and Gregorian-type chant. It brings us back down the main purpose of pilgrimage.
But that aside, what abides in the memory is the fun, wit and lewdness of Chaucer’s 14th century pilgrims.
A clever production that all lovers of Chaucer, or those who wish to learn, should see.