The Wife of Willesden
26 Nov 21 – 15 Jan 22
269 Kilburn High Road, London, UK, NW6 7JR
The Wife of Willesden, Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist Zadie Smith’s debut play, celebrates the borough of Brent after being awarded the London Borough of Culture in 2020. Like part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the play is set in an inn – the Sir Colin Campbell Pub on Kilburn High Road. However, Robert Jones’ set, with its kitschy lampshades and beautiful dark wood paneling, feels a lot cosier than Chaucer’s Tabard Inn must have been. The pub feels familiar for those who live in North West London and those who don’t alike – a feeling that can be maximised if you choose the option to sit on stage as if you’re one of the pub-goers. These pub-goers are celebrating their borough’s recent award with a lock-in and a night of story-telling.
In this enthusiastic reinterpretation of The Wife of Bath, Clare Perkins, of Eastenders fame, exudes sex appeal and charm as Alvita, a Willesden native and five-time wife. While Perkins does have a larger-than-life presence and great verbal dexterity to pull it off, Alvita’s ‘prologue’ is (thankfully) not just a 60-minute monologuing of Chaucer’s 860ish lines. While Performs discourses about power, sexuality, and gender norms in society, she interacts with the ensemble cast of pub-goers. The best moments of the play were when Perkins interacts with the other actors while proving her many ‘feminist’ points. It would have been great to see more of the relationships between the different ensemble characters (we catch a glimpse of this when there is a brief argument between the preacher (George Eggay) and the bailiff (Andrew Frame)) and not just their relationships to Alvita. These interrelationships would fit with the spirit of Chaucer’s Tales – Chaucer arranges the tales so that their themes speak to each other, for example the Wife’s tale forms part of a larger ‘marriage group’ of tales.
Nevertheless, The Wife of Willesden is a sprawling and ambitious project. Despite the multi-rolling, there isn’t that much variety in the actual action. Even the comic gags and asides became a bit redundant after the first few times.
Apart from the set change which transitions us from the London pub to 18th century Jamaica, there wasn’t much of a difference tonally between the prologue and the tale. In this sense, Smith’s debut play is similar to her debut novel, White Teeth, which could have also benefited – by her own admission – from intentional streamlining. However, here in the Kiln theatre, it’s not that there needs to be less storylines but rather more – the prologue would have felt noticeably drawn and insular. This is fine when reading Chaucer but as a piece of theatre, dynamism is key and Indhu Rubasingham’s staging can only add so much of this.
As mentioned, Smith has updated the setting of The Wife of Bath’s tale from the Arthurian courts to 18th century Jamaica. Jamaica is where Alvita hails from – however, apart from this reason, there is no real rhyme or reason for why this particular location has been chosen. This is a larger problem with this production. The fact that Chaucer’s Alison hails from Bath, a cloth-making town, is important to her overall character and presentation and is the reason for the stylish way she dresses and her ‘high maintenance’. We don’t get that sense of intention here – Alvita is from Willesden but seemingly only because it allows for stylish alliteration in the title. Even the nods to Kilburn throughout the prologue feel facile. Without the quick mention of the 98 bus which goes through Kilburn High Road, this play could be set anywhere in London. I left the theatre not really understanding what makes Brent the London Borough of Culture.
This production is of course an adaptation of Chaucer but risks feeling like a prostration. Smith inserts a surrogate who bookends the production with an apologetic admission that she’s paying a debt and that this is her first stab at theatre. This is something Chaucer himself does. However, Chaucer doesn’t shy away from playing with and debasing the classical texts that he pays homage to throughout his oeuvre. However, Zadie dares do nothing of the sort. In the end, this makes the play feel like one giant literature project, as if an English student has been told to reinterpret The Wife of Bath for extra credit.