Unlike their fictional forebears in Chaucer, the band of pilgrims in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of The Canterbury Tales does finally arrive at its destination. Though what happened to the competition to reward the best story remains anyone’s guess.

Mike Poulton’s six-hour saga, performed in two plays and thereby blocking out a summer’s day and night for all resilient epic fanciers, does not add any real dramatic value to the Chaucerian feast of language, bawdy, song and festival.

Once again, London theatregoers can only glean the vaguest idea of what characterises the RSC these days, as the West End presentation by Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt - clearly does not reflect the sense of inclusive joy and high sprits that tumbled through the Swan (according to the reviews) in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of last year. After a long tour, the show sits modestly, and not all that compellingly, in the stern proscenium of the Gielgud.

Every now and then the pilgrims jog up and down on their hobby horses. A bare bottom or two is meekly offered in the Miller’s Tale. The farcical bed-hopping climax of the Reeve’s Tale is a charming interlude. And the cockerel Chauntecleer and his paramour Pertelote are surprise refugees from Avenue Q, improvising a duet to the accompaniment of a puppet hen party.

But the most effective passages are the stillest, as in the patient unravelling of the beautiful Knight’s Tale, with a pair of best friends transformed to deadly amorous rivals, or the enchanting fable of the Franklin’s Tale, where a romance suspended over a long passage of time is magically resolved with the mystery of the disappearing rocks and the ardent imprecations of Anna Hewson’s love-starved Dorigen.

And in a gallimaufry of production styles where much of the acting is suitably coarse and most of it, quite frankly, shockingly second-rate, the sustained plea for poverty in love by Paola Dionisotti’s pious Prioress in the Wife of Bath’s tale is a beacon of expressive sincerity and technical execution. The greatest weakness of the triple-credited direction of Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby is a failure to strike a contemporary chord of spirituality without resorting to medieval mugging and narrative incoherence.

For most of the show, we merely participate in a lot of rompish gadding about that would have just about passed muster in a provincial repertory company of the distant past, let alone the fitfully enterprising RSC of the muddled present.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from December 2005 and this production's original run at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mention Chaucer and most people come back with a knowing reference to medieval rudery, especially in the Miller’s Tale. That’s the one in which a young wife cuckolds her husband and then offers her bare bottom out of a window for an unwanted lover to kiss, only for him to wield a red hot poker at her paramour’s posterior. Well, the Miller’s Tale is here alright, treated with no-knickers gusto, and indeed there is swyving (Middle English for rumpypumpy) aplenty in Mike Poulton’s faithful script. But scatological matters are only part of the story.

The Canterbury Tales is a beautifully balanced and subtle work, full of contrasts. Playful, naughty and subversive, it can also be witty, philosophical, morally didactic, noble and inspiring. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s two-play version, directed by Gregory Doran (with Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby) gives full rein to this glorious variety, including at least a mention of every tale and the revealing links between them.

As the pilgrims leave Southwark on their way to the shrine of the murdered Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, the host of the Tabard Inn sets a story-telling competition to while away the time. The travellers are lively characters ready to be given substance by actors and the 20-strong cast grab the opportunities offered both by their main parts and the roles within the tales.

The much-married Wife of Bath (a spendidly flirtatious and authoritative Claire Benedict), the camp Pardoner (Dylan Charles displaying lank blond locks and a lustful leer), the prissy Prioress with her French tags and her spoilt lapdog (Paola Dionisotti revelling in her disapproval), like their companions, tell stories revealing of themselves: respectively about women’s desire for mastery over men, about the inevitability of cheating Death - the Pardoner makes his living by selling pardons to the guilty - and about the murder of an innocent Christian child.

Styles change with content. If the Miller’s and the answering Reeve’s Tale (each about the cuckolding of a member of the other’s profession) are blue-joke farce, the Knight’s Tale is one of courtly love, the Clerk of Oxenford’s Tale (in which patient Grisilde bears unbearable loss and humiliation) is a Christian parable of reward for goodness with something of the medieval mystery play about it. There is sometimes a problem knowing exactly whose story is which, though, as characters tumble out of one tale into road-side rivalry and then into the next; more obvious introductions wouldn’t go amiss.

Chaucer himself is along for the ride (on hobby horses, that is). Mark Hadfield is good at playing the sardonic observer and is sometimes hilarious, but it isn’t easy to believe in him as the brilliant courtier, poet, diplomat and composer of this cornucopia of characters and stories. When he tells his own, the Tale of Sir Thopas, he breaks into a spirited rap which is gleefully taken up by the rest of the company. This is fun, but as everyone is enjoying themselves so much, the irony of Chaucer’s own creations telling him to shut up because his contribution isn’t up to snuff rather goes by the board.

Michael Vale’s design, on a greensward stage, with a single tree and a versatile wooden structure - prison, windmill, cottage - is simple enough for the long tour ahead, while Adrian Lee’s medieval-style music deftly sets the changing moods. The last candle-lit moments are beautifully contemplative as the raggle-taggle company sing a sacred song. Peace at last.

Seeing both three-hour plays in a day may sound like the equivalent of overdosing on wild boar and mead, but the language is easily accessible and pronunciation moves within minutes from medieval to modern. And those rude, hypocritical, greedy, know-it-all, sexy, pious pilgrims would be just as at home on a 21st-century package tour. We know them all.

- Heather Neill