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22 November 2021

Zadie Smith’s stage debut is a filthy, feminist reworking of Chaucer

In The Wife of Willesden, the acclaimed novelist of voices has at last let her characters speak aloud.

By Katherine Cowles

But didn’t Zadie Smith always do theatre? I mean, all that dialogue, those set pieces, those characters so fleshed-out and feeling. In White Teeth, a cacophonous cast competes for our attention; in Swing Time, dance and movement are the centrepiece. Yet it is only now – two decades into her career – that this novelist of voices has at last let her characters speak aloud.

And by God do they speak. For her theatrical debut, the voice Smith has chosen to inhabit is one of Chaucer’s: the Wife of Bath, his lusty, loquacious widow and the only non-nun female pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales. In the 600-year-old text, Alyson from Bath’s sprawling prologue allows her to tell all about her five marriages and how she rejected chastity in favour of sexual pleasure. In Smith’s reimagining, The Wife of Willesden, her prologue is essentially a monologue and Alyson is Alvita – an outspoken lover who, sick of listening to men brag and blither, shuts them up with stories about her own five husbands and some very hot takes on the subject of what women want (hint: it doesn’t involve much talking).

 This being Zadie Smith – surely north-west London’s answer to a Chaucerian social chronicler –  we find ourselves not in medieval England but modern-day Brent, installed in a cheerful pub on Kilburn High Road (the set – gleaming bottles, London Pride on tap and one of those why-is-it-Renaissance carpets – is based on a real Irish boozer across the street from the Kiln playhouse, literally putting the “local” in local theatre). This set-dressing is immersive: some audience members are sat on captain’s chairs at dark oak tables that look sticky. The group in front of me have pints of Guinness – the old “method” trick, I see.

Chaucer’s pilgrimage is now a pub crawl that has stalled at a lock-in, which works both textually (the Canterbury pilgrims met at an inn) and contextually (if a woman wants to make men listen, better ensure they’re catered-for and captive). Under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction, the cast – a landlady and her punters, who multi-role as the husbands, a pastor, St Paul and black Jesus, to name a few – frolic fluidly to a soundtrack of Kool & the Gang and Cardi B. This is let-your-hair-down Chaucer: at one point there is twerking.

Alvita, played with big divorce energy by an intoxicating Clare Perkins, swaggers around in a tight scarlet dress that – to use a phrase of my mother’s – she “falls out of” carefreely. Her voice is gravelly and feels like it could go at any moment, but not before she gives her husbands an earful, summoning each one for a bit of public humiliation. One is outed as a non-starter in the sheets, another as a fan of Jordan Peterson. Eek. The message is one of sex-positivity: Alvita has no time for “slut shamers” and “uptight churchy men” (Chaucer’s sermonising priests). She wants power and bodily autonomy; she wants – quite explicitly – to be satisfied.

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But back to the speaking, because the language here is the real treat. The characters talk in verse, in a mix of Caribbean patois and London slang, and Smith takes care to preserve Chaucer’s ten-syllable lines and rhyming couplets (a few modern hits: “sitch” goes with “bitch”, “tandem” with “gal-dem”, “spirit” with “innit”). It’s not exactly lyrical, and there are a few duds (“arks”/“Denmark”), but it’s light and engaging, lines stuffed full with sass and smut. The 14th-century pilgrims talk like real people – that’s some linguistic feat.

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As she sticks close to him, Smith does inherit some of Chaucer’s pacing issues. The prologue is long, and the wife’s tale – the story within a story in which a rapist knight learns a lesson in retributive justice – comes late, slowing the pace when it should speed up. Still, it’s all so fun and naughty: two parts feminism, one part filth, served with a cleansing moral chaser.

The show begins and ends metatheatrically. Smith, embodied, in trademark head-wrap, by Crystal Condie, introduces the background of the play, written to celebrate Brent winning the 2020 London Borough of Culture. After 90 minutes she reappears and apologises if the script lacks “finesse”. Apparently it was all a mistake anyway: Smith had suggested a monologue for a magazine, which Twitter took to mean “a play”. Rather than explain the error, she wrote the damn thing – the accidental play she says will likely be her last. But doesn’t Smith always do theatre? Or, rather, shouldn’t she?

“The Wife of Willesden” runs until 15 January 2022  

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos