Imagine over an hour of watching someone working flat out, every minute, center stage, almost desperate to hold our attention and make a point. Exhausting. And the teller? British Actress Clare Perkins in the title role and she is undeniably talented. The tale? The one told by Chaucer’s bawdy, outspoken “The Wife of Bath” here transformed into the THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN now onstage at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Author Zadie Smith has ushered Chaucer’s 14th century tale into the 21st century where a pilgrimage on the road to Canterbury has become a late-night pub crawl in northwest London. The wife’s tale of her five husbands, her lusty sexual appetite and prowess as a rant against sexism, double standards, religious mores, and rampant misogyny remains hyper-relevant. The tale still needs to be told but more convincingly and intimately than it is here.
The wife of Willesden is Alvita and takes her cue from the longwinded Wife of Bath. In her prologue she cuts loose, tells it like it is, challenges the norms, exaggerates her libido and her physical allure, relishes shocking people, revels in her power, and her own sexual pleasure. The various husbands she references hover about the stage punctuating the action to embody or challenge whatever Alvita is saying. This work which premiered at London’s Kiln Theater in 2021 and helmed by their artistic director Indhu Rubasingham fails to ignite from the get go, and not for lack of Perkins’ trying. She gives it all she’s got, leaving little to the imagination and most of it onstage. Indeed, the actress is lithe and raucous but delivers what is essentially an hour-long monologue in exclamation points!!! More nuanced pacing would have made for better story-telling, and given more dramatic shape to playwright Zadie Smith’s direct transpositions of Chaucer’s text into updated language and contemporary rhymes.
Once the prologue is past, and it’s time to tell the actual tale, we are relieved. I needed a break. This tale of a man who attacks a young woman and is given a year to search the world to find the answer to the question “What do women want?” in order to save his life– is a relief. The ending involves a decision around power and the transcendence resulting from surrender. Chaucer knew what this wife was talking about. The tale itself remains as relevant as ever, unfortunately.
But the team who’s mounted this production has left its story tellers stranded, to be swallowed up by an overblown set. This raucous little watering hole where folks tell tales into the wee hours over a pint is here a cavernous, high-ceilinged, richly carpeted establishment more akin to an upscale lounge designed for a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. The actors rattle around shouting their lines trying to fill the soaring space. It is too meticulously dotted with quaint little pendant lights suspended high above perfectly arranged shelves of assorted pretty bottles of spirits below, with a few lonely benches and cafe tables scattered around the far perimeter where random audience members lean in.
I would have moved the whole thing right down into the middle of the audience like that glorious production “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” Why not invite the audience physically into the space like a REAL PUB (I literally JUST returned from London and spent a good deal of time in various old haunts) where people are cozied up to each other, sharing tables, leaning over the bar, talking over each other, their dogs in tow, sipping a pint. Here the impact of the storytelling was dwarfed by the impact of the set.
Poor Ms. Perkins and company just about had to turn themselves inside out to hold our attention and effect the kind of connection more conducive staging would have afforded. Never have I seen the set and staging of a production so miscalculated and so undone by its accoutrements. More intimate staging would have helped the pacing of the tale, allowed the actors to relax into the rhythm of the text and the vibe. But I also not so secretly hope that one day such wives tales will no longer need to be told.
THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN at the American Repertory Theater through March 17!