Theater Review: “The Wife of Willesden” — Pleasantly Bawdy
By Bill Marx
If the production sends at least some of the audience members back to the magnificent poetry of The Canterbury Tales, it would have done a mitzvah.
The Wife of Willesden, adapted by Zadie Smith from Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath” from The Canterbury Tales. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Staged by the Kiln Theatre and presented in association with BAM by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Harvard Square, Cambridge, through March 18. Following its North American premiere at the Loeb Drama Center, the production will receive its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), April 1-16.
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath indulges in some peregrinations in her contribution to The Canterbury Tales, as does Zadie Smith’s modernized stage adaptation, so I will indulge myself with a detour before my review of The Wife of Willesden. I am not going far afield. This week the New Yorker noticed what many in the Humanities already knew well — there has been a precipitous drop in English Lit majors. Creative Writing, however, is exploding: it is clear that students want to write rather than read. How fares Chaucer? Not well, at least according to a 2021 report in the Times Literary Supplement that indicated English departments in the UK were dropping or curtailing the study of medieval literature. Why the boot? Too difficult and too white were among the explanations, even though biographer Marion Turner supplies evidence that Chaucer lived in a multicultural part of town. Cancel culture came a-calling after evidence surfaced that Chaucer may have been guilty of rape — the poet has since been cleared, but the stigma, propelled by a smidgen of suspicion, remains.
This prologue is my way of cheering the remarks, made by a stand-in for Smith during The Wife of Willesden, that the adaptation offers an opportunity for audiences to appreciate Chaucer’s enduring brilliance. If the production sends at least some of the audience members back to the magnificent poetry of The Canterbury Tales, it will have done a mitzvah. Classic literature of the challenging variety needs all the help it can get, what with our attention spans shrinking down to under 10 seconds in the age of TikTok. (In the theater, intermissions are disappearing with the rapidity of the Arctic ice pack.) And if Chaucer fades out, will the poetry of Shakespeare be too far behind? (Turner argues that Chaucer’s influence on his Elizabethan fan has been overlooked.) Lately, a number of theater directors are saying the quiet part out loud — demands made by the Bard’s language may become too difficult for an impatient public to grapple with in a generation or two. Are you eager for poetry-free adaptations like 1955’s Joe MacBeth? I am not.
Now for this modern version of The Wife of Willesden. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath marks the first major appearance of a lower-class figure in English literature. It remains a powerful portrait of female vibrancy, a woman five-times married and still not done with the game. 600 years later Smith calls her Alvita: she is in her mid-50s, still lustily indomitable, and she extols (at great length) the joys of sex and the benefits of guile in a pub in northwest London. As did Chaucer’s original, Alvita explains how she rated her husbands: the older ones were satisfactory because they were easy to manipulate; the younger ones were problematic because they demanded total control. (One, misled by “incel” culture, turned to domestic abuse.) According to Alvita, the cultivation of meekness in males — with women put in complete command of lovemaking — will tamp down misogyny. That, along with exposing religious hypocrisy. This is one of the answers to the question of “What does a woman want?” before Freud asked it.
And that historical short circuit explains why The Wife of Willesden is pleasant but musty, distinctly old fogyish, sensually speaking. Early on, Smith’s stand-in warns audience members that they might become anxious about what they are going to see and hear — but what age and demographic is she talking to? The over-80 set? Three generations have been raised on the sexual transparency of hip-hop and rap. S&M has gone mainstream; AI chatbots churn out porn by the prompt. I would argue that there is little in Alvita’s mildly salacious advice and mimicry that would have the play banned in Ron DeSantis’s censorious Florida. In fact, given what I have read about bed-hopping activities in The Villages retirement community, the seniors there could teach Alvita a thing or two. (Rather than a pub, an assisted living facility might have been a better location for an update.) Sex hasn’t changed all that much in 600 years, but what can be said about it publicly has opened up, radically. Despite allusions to “incel” and “slut-shaming,” the bawdiness comes off as safe and toothless because Smith settled for finding contemporary parallels to Chaucer’s tale rather than daring to imaginatively reinvent. (Though relocating the post-prologue fable from Arthurian England to 18th-century Jamaica offers the opportunity for the show to make some trenchant political points.)
Still, the proceedings are lightly likable. Smith’s couplets are amusing, though they sometimes seesaw a bit too easily. Clare Perkins is vibrant as all get-out — she embodies the Wife of Bath’s take-no-prisoners aggression as well as her endearing moments of humanity. What’s missing is the character’s self-deprecating sense of humor: this is very much an exercise in the “I am woman, hear me roar” mode. Director Indhu Rubasingham cultivates broad, musical-lite performances (there is some dancing to pop hits, including an interlude of twerk training) from the supporting cast. There is no interaction among the characters — this is yet another exercise in storytelling sans conflict. The cast members spend most of their time facing the audience, working (at times a bit too hard) to win it over.
The evening put me in mind of a now extinct theater genre — not quite as old as Chaucer — called “the tired businessman”‘s show. After a day of profit-making in the rat race, males were invited to relax at a flattering, easy-to-take stage entertainment: it included a few sex jokes, attractive performers, and some music and dancing. The Wife of Willesden feels like its reverse-gendered return: a few sex jokes, obligatory shout-outs to female power, satiric pokes at male privilege, attractive performers, and some music and dancing — the tired businesswoman’s show.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.