Medieval England was not kind to the Jewish People. The 1290 Edict of Expulsion commanded that sheriffs expel all Jews. A century later, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his opus, “The Canterbury Tales,” in which a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral compete in a storytelling contest. The 24 stories within a story are written in prose and verse and reflect medieval society’s attitudes about religion, social class and morality. Among them is “The Prioress’s Tale,” which narrates a case of Jewish blood libel in a story about a child martyr killed by Jews engaging in ritual murder.
But Chaucer also had a bawdy, more playful side. “The Wife of Bath” is among the best known of his 24 tales and, over 600 years later, was the inspiration for Zadie Smith’s raucous adaptation, “The Wife of Willesden,” a terrific production at the American Repertory Theatre through March 17.
Smith, an award-winning novelist and first-time playwright, set her modernized version of the Chaucer tale in Kilburn, the melting-pot community in Northwest London where she grew up and still lives, a place where inclusion and diversity reign. Her play is a love letter to a local pub’s motley group of revelers who fare from “church, temple, mosque and shul.” Times sure have changed since Chaucer’s day.
Author (Jessica Murrain), an undisguised stand-in for Smith, sets the scene and introduces us to the pub’s lively clientele, lured this evening by a story-telling competition and its prize of a full English breakfast to the winner. “If there is a person in Brent who doesn’t think their life should be turned into a 400-page story, I’d like to meet them,” she declares.
The first few stories are told by pompous men, who drone on about themselves with misplaced over-confidence. Lurking in the background is Alvita, the Wife of Willesden. Finally, fed up with the men’s yawning yarns and itching for center stage, she grabs the imaginary mic.
As Alvita, Clare Perkins is a Category 6 hurricane. Poured into a scarlet body-hugging dress and shod in weapons-grade stiletto heels, she bursts into the spotlight and commands it for the rest of the evening.
Brash and boozy, fierce and wise, Alvita has a story to tell, a folktale about an 18th century Jamaican soldier and a life-changing lesson he learned. But first, an introduction. She recounts her romantic history of five marriages with a full-Monty, unapologetic focus on sex, pleasure and her rapacious libido, which she wears on her sleeve like a badge of honor.
“The shock never ends when women say things usually said by men, whether today or 600 years ago,” she says with a wink.
Alvita is a consummate narrator. She imitates, animates and intimidates, bringing her history to life with the help of her husbands, who happen to be at the pub and serve as willing props as she details their virtues and vices. Her philosophy of life defies conventions and rules, be they religious, political or matrimonial. “What you call laws, I call advice,” she tells her strict, churchgoing aunt. “I think God likes variety.”
Eventually, Alvita launches into the meat of her story – the Jamaican folktale. A young 18th century soldier is sentenced to die for raping a woman. In the spirit of restorative justice, the benevolent Queen Nanny agrees to spare his life under one condition. He has a year and a day to comb the earth and discover the answer to the same question Alvita poses rhetorically throughout the play: What do women want?
The folktale’s answer echoes Alvita’s feminist refrain – women want to be free of fear, to be happy, to follow a path of their own making and, most importantly, to be deliciously, eternally and completely satisfied sexually. She looks at the men around her and the power they claim as rightfully theirs and basically says, “I’ll have what they’re having.”
Perkins’s performance cannot be overpraised. She doesn’t steal the show; she IS the show. Her charismatic Alvita may present as part stand-up comic, part Tina Turner, but beneath that flashy exterior beats a tender heart with a sage message.
Kiln Theatre Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham brings a playfulness to the 95-minute (no intermission) production, changing mood, time and place with, for example, a simple gold tray behind the head to represent an apostle or bar dishrags to represent togas. The ensemble cast is superb and Robert Jones’s set is a magnificent holy shrine to drink and camaraderie.
But there would be nothing without Smith’s ambitious and smart play, using verse and iambic pentameter, a poetic form perfected by Chaucer. Her rhyming couplets in today’s vernacular evoke Chaucer’s Middle English in rhythm and meaning. That is no small feat. Θ
For tickets and information, go to americanrepertorytheater.org.