Mike Poulton’s two-part Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval classic The Canterbury Tales transferred to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre last Thursday (13 July 2006), with Parts I and II playing in repertory (See News, 12 May 2006).

The productions formed part of the RSC’s non-Shakespeare season this past winter (ahead of the recently launched year-long Complete Works festival), running in Stratford-upon-Avon from 1 December 2005 to 4 February 2006 (previews from 16 November) before embarking on a UK tour and transferring to Washington DC’s Kennedy Center. A cast of 20 perform all 23 of Chaucer’s bawdy tales of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, directed by Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby (See News, 26 Apr 2005).

While overnight critics found faults in the epic undertaking, they also saw plenty to be impressed with, and came away with a (perhaps too) thorough knowledge of the bawdy shenanigans of Chaucer’s pilgrims. The two-part, six-hour performance left most wanting to applaud the audience – as well as the cast – for their sheer endurance.

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - De Jongh enjoyed the “buoyant, comically propelled distillation” of Chaucer’s classic. “Adrian Lee's lovely score for a three-strong band and songs for many voices abounds with period pastiche. Mike Poulton's adaptation, replacing the dated, rhyming couplets of Nevill Coghill's version, comes with an easy, elegant turn of phrase and almost invariably resists the lure of contemporary, yob-speak. I came away delighted by this brilliant company's exuberant evocation of Chaucer's gleeful depiction of freelance sex without guilt and by the witty, stylised theatricality of the production.… Unfortunately there are glaring faults. All the fun comes in the first part, the second is a long let-down…. A three-hour selection of Canterbury Tales, in all their Chaucerian diversity, would better fit the theatrical bill.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “This two-part RSC version - skilfully adapted by Mike Poulton and now brought to London thanks to the good offices of the producers Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright - certainly revels in the boisterous bawdy…. There's ‘swyving’ and cuckolding and bare butts galore…. But ribaldry is only part of the story, as is richly demonstrated by this show, which is presented in two full-length, largely self-contained sections and directed, with terrific verve and resourcefulness by Greg Doran, Rebecca Gatward, and Jonathan Munby…. A crack ensemble, packed with personality, fall on the material with gusto and finesse, relishing the opportunities provided both within the stories and between them, as the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury bicker and fight and use their self-revealing tales as sharp weapons in their feuds.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian - “The RSC's version of Chaucer's 14th-century poem arrives in London looking pretty sprightly, even if after six hours in its company you feel you are clapping your own endurance at having survived all those hairy bottoms, cucumber jokes, farts and couplets ending in ‘plucked’ as much as the cast's undoubted devotion to the task at hand. Mike Poulton's adaptation is good and true, and this is an ensemble piece in every sense with a delightful cast of 20…. I wish the directors had not gone quite so strongly down the heritage-theatre trail with the boisterous Ye Olde Merrie and Lusty Englande look and feel. But the show succeeds in creating a sense of the social diversity of those taking the journey to Canterbury.”

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times - “The RSC’s exuberant staging of Chaucer’s classic… has transferred to the West End in a riot of ribaldry and colour. Mike Poulton’s superb adaptation is both faithful and accessible, comfortably inhabiting the middle ground between Middle English and the modern vernacular…. The production… is not all buttocks, farts and fornication. There are tales that move, tales of chivalric grace and one that reveals the dark heart of its teller in a manner that, in the midst of so much warm good humour, chills the blood…. The ensemble playing is excellent, with Mark Hadfield’s Chaucer a wry observer and chronicler. There are occasions when the journey crawls rather than canters, and a Chaucerian rap number is toe-curling. Otherwise, this is English history and literature brought with irrepressible brio to rich and rambunctious life.”

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com – “Mike Poulton’s six-hour saga… does not add any real dramatic value to the Chaucerian feast of language, bawdy, song and festival.… Much of the acting is suitably coarse and most of it, quite frankly, shockingly second-rate… The greatest weakness of the triple-credited direction is a failure to strike a contemporary chord of spirituality without resorting to medieval mugging and narrative incoherence.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell