Mike Poulton’s excellent adaptation of The Canterbury Tales began life as a two-parter for the Royal Shakespeare Company some five years ago, but for all that this abbreviated version emerges as a satisfyingly full response to Chaucer’s poem.
In part that is due to Poulton’s detailed involvement with the original. Eight or so of the tales are acted out more or less in full, but the constant, often understated allusions to the original create an impression of watching the whole work, not just a selection of tales. We open with a mildly modernised treatment of the famous opening lines and move away only gradually, anchored by Poulton’s version of Chaucer’s couplets. Details from the original are precisely judged: characters are introduced (quite naturally, it appears) by a relevant few lines from the Prologue, the Prioress’s love of little dogs leads to a floppy canine companion (flattened in a perfectly executed bit of business) and the Summoner, seldom seen in this adaptation, has enough time to establish his camp duo with the Pardoner before they give us their greatest hit “ Come hither, love, to me”.
The characters and relationships also convince: the expansive Host (Phil Corbitt), just too expansive for the more sensitive pilgrims, the quarrel between the Miller and the Reeve, and the shy note-making Chaucer (Andy Cryer) rejecting every approach to tell a tale before launching into the hysterically banal Tale of Sir Topas, brought to a speedy end by his audience, as in the original.
The adaptation (and, indeed, Conrad Nelson’s production) has the huge advantage of not concentrating particularly on the bawdy tales. The bare backsides and constant “swiving” (Poulton cleverly uses the original – suitably coarse without the offence of modern terms) of the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales are put over with uninhibited relish, but this is the story of a pilgrimage and finishes in due solemnity at the tomb of the “holy blissful martyr”.
The Northern Broadsides production is as perfectly judged as the adaptation. There is some inconspicuous doubling of pilgrims (Matthew Rixon’s muscular Miller and epicene Summoner a nice contrast), plus, of course, roles in the tales, but the production is generously and strongly cast. The music, always a key feature of Broadsides’ productions, is outstanding. Conrad Nelson, composer as well as director, raids Albert Ketelbey and New Orleans funeral marches as well as producing memorably appropriate melodies of his own, and is abetted by Musical Director Rebekah Hughes and a cast that boasts several excellent voices and many hearty ones, plus instrumental skills that range as far as euphonium and bassoon.
It’s interesting to speculate how the production, which began at Stoke’s New Vic, works in the round. Lis Evans’ designs (attractively practical, with a non-specific medieval air) and Richard G. Jones’ evocative lighting play a larger part than in many Broadsides productions and seem particularly well suited to the configuration of the Quarry Theatre where the only disappointment was a decent first night attendance rather than the full house this production deserves.