The Wife of Willesden, novelist’s Zadie Smith’s first stage play, is a pulsating twenty-first century translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales.
Zadie Smith grew up around the corner from the Kiln Theatre, on the Kilburn High Road, and has set two of her books ‘White Teeth’ and ‘NW’ on her home turf. The Wife Of Willesden was originally commissioned as part of Smith’s input for Brent’s role as the ‘London Borough of Culture 2020.’
During her studies at Cambridge University, Smith had to translate late 14th century Chaucer into contemporary English, but now over 20 years later, her debut play is more a celebratory labour of love, and The Wife of Willesden transposes Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath,’ into a euphonious ode to Brent. With references to owning your privilege, condemnation of the online misogynistic culture of Incel, and a shout-out to listening to diverse voices, and not just to those in power, Smith brings timely references to her piece.
In Chaucer’s original Canterbury Tales one of the pilgrims is called Alyson, or the Wife of Bath, who wholeheartedly reveals that she has been married five times, and shockingly expounds, in direct contrast to the restrictive values of medieval society, her liberal beliefs on women’s sexuality.
In Smith’s contemporary adaptation, Alyson is replaced by local pub legend Alvita, the ‘Wife of Willesden,’ a brash Jamaican-born British woman in her 50’s who, in a mixture of London slang and patois, holds court in the pub, and is now “pissed enough to tell her life story to whoever has ears and eyes.”
Alvita, like her Chaucerian forerunner, has also been married five times and speaks unapologetically about her ‘punani’ and sexual adventures with her husbands. Typically, in response to her religious auntie’s moralising about her immoderate lifestyle, Alvita responds glibly: “Auntie, what you call laws (commandments) I call advice.”
For Alvita and the other characters in The Wife of Willesden, Smith has converted Chaucer’s Middle English into a colloquial dialect of verse couplets that she describes as “North Weezian.” Chaucer’s pilgrimage becomes a night of storytelling in the local pub, and the medieval merchants and Knights are transformed into a variety of culturally diverse characters from Kilburn’s High Street.
In her storytelling, Alvita relocates the original Arthurian legend of Chaucer’s tale of rape and redemption to Maroon Town, Jamaica, where a young man’s death sentence may be reprieved by the legendary Maroon Chieftainess, Queen Nanny, if he can find out the secret to ‘what all women want.’
Thus 600 years later, in the tradition of The Wife of Bath, Smith’s The Wife of Willesden, builds a bridge between past and present, and continues to portray strong women who are telling their stories, and using their voices in the community.
Clare Perkins gives a mesmerising central performance as Alvita, and she is adeptly supported by a multi-role playing cast. The 95-minute play is vividly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and the tailoring of the auditorium into an immersive pub set by Robert Jones is outstanding.
The Wife of Willesden is at The Kiln Theatre until 24th December 2021.