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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

WEEKENDER: Zadie Smith's ‘The Wife of Willesden’ puts modern spin on a classic Chaucer tale

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The cast of "The Wife of Willesden" is pictured.

“The Wife of Willesden” (2021), a new play written by British novelist Zadie Smith, is a distinctly modern work of theater. It’s full of references to Beyoncé, Jordan Peterson and #MeToo. Thus, it might come as a surprise that the play, now playing at the American Repertory Theatre, is based on a poem that’s more than 600 years old.

Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the “father of English literature,” is best known today for writing “The Canterbury Tales,” a collection of poems. Published after Chaucer’s death in 1400, the stories were written mostly in Middle English verse and became an important contribution to the world of English literature. One of the most famous poems in his collection, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” is narrated by Alyson, the titular “Wife of Bath.” In her new play, Smith examines the Wife of Bath through a modern lens — Alyson is reimagined as Alvita and the story’s setting is moved from Bath to Willesden, a racially diverse region of Northwest London.

The play is set in a lively pub where local residents come together to share their stories. All eyes are on Alvita (Clare Perkins), a middle-aged British Jamaican woman known as the “Wife of Willesden,” when she makes her first entrance onto the stage. Alvita’s been married five times, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind when it comes to love, religion and gender roles. She’s a master storyteller, quickly attracting attention of the bar’s tenants as she recounts her tales of sex and marriage. Just like in Chaucer’s original story, the bulk of the play is a “Prologue,” in which Alvita introduces herself and recounts her own life story. After the prologue, Alvita moves on to her tale — a story of justice set in colonial Jamaica.

Smith, author of the bestselling novel “White Teeth,” makes her playwriting debut with her adaptation of this classic Chaucer tale which is set in her hometown of Willesden. The play, which debuted at the Kiln Theatre in London in 2021, made its North American debut at the A.R.T. in Harvard Square on Feb. 25. After wrapping up its limited run on March 17, the play will transfer to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with an opening night of April 1.

As you enter the theater, you’ll be amazed by the scale and beauty of the set. The entire stage has transformed into a Willesden pub, with patterned carpets covering the floor and dozens of lamps hanging from the ceiling. The walls of the bar itself are stacked with rows upon rows of alcohol. The line between audience and performer is blurred as several audience members sit onstage at tables and benches. 

Perkins steals the show as Alvita, the storyteller at the center of the play. Her powerful stage presence, physicality and comedic timing keep the play’s momentum going. Along with Perkins, there are several other standout performers: Ellen Thomas as Alvita’s religious Aunty P; George Eggay as a Nigerian pastor who disapproves of Alvita’s lifestyle; and Scott Miller as Ryan, one of Alvita’s husbands. And the cast elevates the show with their audience interactions — the blurring of lines between the audience and the performers makes it feel as if you’re in the bar with Alvita, listening to her tell her story.

The play’s religious commentary is sharp and hilarious — even Black Jesus (Marcus Adolphy) makes an appearance. Adolphy leans into the humor of the role, interrupting Alvita’s story with religious advice, paired with a halo created by a silver drink tray. At one point, the literal voice of God booms out throughout the theater, exclaiming “Everyone be asexual!” to prove a point during one of Alvita’s arguments with Aunty P.

At several moments, Alvita’s story is interrupted as the cast breaks into spontaneous dance, paired with flashing lights and a sparkly disco ball. The first random dance sequence is, fittingly, to “Super Freaky Girl” (2022), where Alvita makes it abundantly clear that she wants a man who can put his whole self, physically speaking, into their shared love — specifically, by twerking and getting a bit freaky in the bedroom. Other scenes, like Ryan and Alvita’s first meeting to “This Will Be” (1975), add something new and fresh to this retelling. These musical interludes are interspersed throughout the play, as Nicki Minaj, Natalie Cole and Earth, Wind & Fire make key moments in Alvita’s story more engaging for the audience.

A strength of the show is how effectively Smith translates Chaucer’s tale into modern English. Smith accomplishes the difficult feat of swapping out the archaic language of Chaucer for modern lingo, mixing in some British and Jamaican slang. By subtly maintaining Chaucer’s use of rhyming couplets throughout, the story becomes all the more entertaining. 

However, after a smooth transition into Alvita’s tale, the show loses some momentum. Alvita tells a story that mirrors “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” swapping out medieval Britain for 18th-century colonial Jamaica. In order to seek retribution after committing a heinous crime, a young Maroon man (Troy Glasgow) is forced to travel the land to find the answer to the question “what do women want the most?” Although Alvita is still acting as a narrator in this part of the play, the sudden change of pace is a bit jarring and leaves something to be desired. When Alvita finally returns to close out the story, it’s a relief to see her back in the spotlight again. Despite the pacing issues, the story ultimately feels complete and wraps up well in the end. 

A classic story told through a modern lens, “The Wife of Willesden” is the adventure of a woman who knows what she wants, and instead of allowing others to deem her less for taking it, she is empowered by her own passion and sex-positivity. By breathing new life to a centuries-old story, Smith’s play brings new voices into a tale of female empowerment, love and human connection.

Summary “The Wife of Willesden” skillfully updates a classic English tale for the 21st century, with an entertaining script from Zadie Smith and a standout performance by Clare Perkins.
4 Stars