Zadie Smith’s ‘The Wife of Willesden’ brings Chaucer loudly to London
The Daily Beast
April 6, 2023
Clare Perkins plays Alvita, the much-married, life experience-drenched lead character in superstar novelist Zadie Smith’s debut play, an adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath.”
It was strange and also a thrill, as a longtime fan of BBC radio soap The Archers living in New York, to find the much-missed Denise in Brooklyn the other evening, radically transformed and yet in some ways still very Denise-ish. On air, Denise, efficient and direct administrator of a veterinary practice who we wish would just get it together with colleague Alistair, has been absent for some time; her son Paul has instead moved to the fictional English rural hamlet of Ambridge and, just like his mother, is a dab hand at keeping Alistair and fellow vet Jakob in line.
To explain her continued absence, we learned recently that Denise is now so in demand as an administrator of veterinary practices that she has been parachuted into others to lick them into shape. We miss her. In reality, her portrayer Clare Perkins has found another beguiling, commanding authority figure to inhabit, in superstar novelist Zadie Smith’s debut play—really, more accurately, a dramatic experience—The Wife of Willesden (BAM, to April 16), an adaptation of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath set in contemporary Kilburn, north west London, where Smith herself grew up and the setting of her novels, White Teeth and NW.
The play, produced in association with A.R.T., was first performed in 2021 at the neighborhood’s Kiln Theatre where Smith herself took acting classes as a child, as part of the London borough of Brent’s designation as the capital’s 2020 “London Borough of Culture.” On every level it rings as a very personal celebration of the polyphony, energy and diversity of Smith’s locale.
Its set, designed by Robert Jones, is a gargantuan pub called the Colin Campbell, featuring multiple, on-point English pub lighting fixtures hanging surreally from the rafters. Some of the audience sit on stage as the actors circle them. For its New York debut, all audience members are handed a glossary of British words and phrases and Jamaican patois that may be unfamiliar to American ears. Smith calls the dialect of the play “North Wheezian.”
Perkins plays the dressed-in-siren-red Alvita, the Wife of Willesden—instead of Chaucer’s Alyson—as a woman who has full-heartedly lived, defiantly herself: witty, caustic, sexual, intelligent, survivor, a queen. She takes us through a life of rollercoaster personal drama, defiantly, absolutely not accepting any nonsense from any of the five men she has married, including a husband who is abusive.
In many ways, this is a faithful adaptation of Chaucer, written in verse couplets, though with modern tweaks. Instead of a pilgrimage to Canterbury, this is a bawdy pub crawl around modern London featuring characters like a pastor played by George Eggar and bailiff played by Andrew Frame. They and other characters played by Marcus Adolphy, Troy Glasgow, Claudia Grant, Nikita Johal, Scott Miller, Jessica Murrain, and Ellen Thomas—a mix of ages, genders, and ethnicities; a mini London melting-pot—are as spry and engaging as Perkins.
Departing from Chaucer, there is a lot of contemporary music, and one particularly memorable all-male dance sequence to Cardi B. The virtuosity of Smith’s rhyming is on vivid display; and the actors switch between time periods (to Jamaican 18th-century folklore), characters, and myth-based stories of misogyny and female strength.
However, despite the energy of the actors and every action-injecting effort made by director Indhu Rubasingham, the narrative shifts of the story feel too ranging, unmooring us from Alvita. This is an engagingly written essay and treatise on a woman and women’s independence and insistence on freedom, but as a fully cohering piece of theater The Wife of Willesden is more of a straining effort, no matter the twinned dazzle of Perkins’ performance and Smith’s writing.
We lose sight of supporting characters too quickly, and Alvita herself disappears towards the end of the show—necessarily so, to keep in line with Chaucer’s bizarre final sequence involving an old hag sexually and romantically entrapping a young man. Structurally faithful to Chaucer too, The Wife of Willesden’s prologue is drawn out, taking up over two-thirds of the show—its detail-filled, story-in-itself nature is itself joked about by Alvita, reassuring the audience not to worry, the performance is almost done.
One meta masterstroke is to have Jessica Murrain playing “Author,” allowing Smith herself to apologize for causing offense, and perceived flaws of her work, and cheekily charm the audience at beginning and end, when in the last moments all words are loudly and exuberantly supplanted by the pleasures of singalong and dance.