The Wife of Willesden review – Zadie Smith goes from page to stage with Chaucer modernisation
The piece plays at the Kiln Theatre
Acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith offered a hostage to fortune when she confessed last week that her first play arose from a misunderstanding; she thought she'd agreed to write a piece for a magazine celebrating her beloved Brent's appointment as London Borough of Culture.
But whatever its origins, the result is a warm and shimmering piece of theatre that takes the Wife of Bath, one of Chaucer's most vivid pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales and brings her zingingly up to date.
The first star of the evening however is not Smith, or even Clare Perkins who plays Alvita, the Wife of Willesden, with towering assurance and verve, but the designer Robert Jones who transforms the Kiln's interior into a warm and welcoming pub, complete with glinting glass bottles ranged across the massive bar and wooden tables (with glued on beermats) at which some of the audience (myself included) take their seats.
It sets the mood; this is a raucous, lively piece of community theatre that welcomes everyone in its capacious arms and when Crystal Condie's uncanny version of Zadie arrives to explain that she has transformed Chaucer's 14th century pilgrims into the denizens of the infamous local, The Colin Campbell, on a lock-in, the fun begins in earnest.
Alvita, in skin-tight red dress and knock-off Louboutins, pushes her way to the front of the crowd, taking over from the men who have dominated the story-telling competition because they think women want to listen to them. Her prologue – the longest section of the play – is a justification of the equal claims of women to be heard and to live their life on equal terms.
The text is a close reworking of the Wife of Bath's tale, complete with five husbands – three good, and two bad – bawdy ruminations, attacks on organised religion and musings on emotional and physical control. Smith's language mimics Chaucer's rhyming couplets with subtle skill and throws in contemporary references for good measure – twerking, #MeToo and Rees-Mogg all get notable look ins.
Indhu Rubasingham's direction shares the same fluid flair. Her magnificent company of ten actors switch from part to part with ease – the holiness of the saints and Jesus are signified by a golden tray held behind their heads – but despite having only seconds to make their mark, each character emerges fully formed from bible-bashing aunt, to doubtful youth, to Socrates and Nelson Mandela.
It's a production full of neat and entrancing touches: the look on one of the husband's faces when Alvita describes his death, the little pageant of avenging Greek wives when one of the husbands gets too lost in the historical precedents of Jordan Peterson. But it's also full of flashes of insight. In brooding on her past, Alvita comments that one husband knew that "when I'm shy or sad I won't stray too far" – a fleeting reference to the kind of coercive control that afflicts so many women.
By the time Alvita at last switches from talking about her own life to telling her actual story, with its insights into what women really want for men transferred from Arthurian times to the Jamaica of Queen Nanny, the evening has been so full of warmth, life and music (a terrific soundtrack courtesy of Ben and Max Ringham with a bit of Stevie Wonder thrown in) that the 90-minute running time flies by.
But it's Perkins who holds it together, with her charisma, her sense of justice and above all her belief that she has the right to be there, telling her story, making her claim. It's a towering performance in a surprisingly terrific show.