Zadie Smith’s ‘The Wife From Willesden’ Brings Chaucer Loudly to London

It was strange and also a thrill, as a longtime fan of the BBC radio soap The Archers living in New York, only to find the much-missed Denise in Brooklyn the other night, radically transformed and yet in some ways still very Denise-ish. On the air, Denise, efficient and direct administrator of a veterinary practice that we would like to reunite with her colleague Alistair, has been absent for some time; her son Paul has instead moved to the fictional rural English hamlet of Ambridge and, like his mother, is helping out to keep Alistair and fellow vet Jakob in line.

To explain her continued absence, we recently learned that Denise is now in such demand as a vet practice administrator that she’s been parachuted into others to get them into shape. We miss her. In fact, her portrayer Clare Perkins has found another alluring and towering authority figure to inhabit, in superstar novelist Zadie Smith’s debut play – really, more accurately, a dramatic experiment –Willesden’s Wife (BAM, to April 16), an adaptation of Chaucer’s Bath’s wife set in contemporary Kilburn, northwest London, where Smith herself grew up and the setting for her novels, White teeth And NO.

The play, produced in association with ART, premiered in 2021 at the Kiln Theater in the area where Smith herself took acting lessons as a child, as part of the London Borough’s designation of Brent as the capital’s ‘London Borough of Culture’ in 2020. On every level, it sounds like a very personal celebration of Smith’s region’s polyphony, energy and diversity.

Its set, designed by Robert Jones, is a gargantuan pub called the Colin Campbell, with multiple very English pub lamps hanging from the rafters, and part of the audience sitting on stage as the actors surround them. For its New York debut, all audience members receive a glossary of British words and phrases and Jamaican patois that may be unfamiliar to American ears. Smith calls the play’s dialect “North Wheezian”.

Perkins plays Alvita, Willesden’s wife, dressed in mermaid red, instead of Chaucer’s Alyson, as a woman who lived wholeheartedly, defiantly herself: witty, caustic, sexual, intelligent , survivor, a queen. She takes us through a rollercoaster life of personal drama, accepting absolutely no nonsense from the five men she married, including an abusive husband.

In many ways it is a faithful adaptation of Chaucer, written in verse couplets, but with modern adjustments. Instead of a pilgrimage to Canterbury, it’s a bawdy pub crawl around modern London featuring characters like a clergyman played by George Eggar and a usher played by Andrew Frame. They and other characters played by Marcus Adolphy, Troy Glasgow, Claudia Grant, Nikita Johal, Scott Miller, Jessica Murrain and Ellen Thomas – a mix of ages, genders and ethnicities; a mini London melting pot – are as lively and engaging as Perkins.

The cast of ‘The Wife from Willesden’.

Stephanie Berger

Departing from Chaucer, there’s plenty of contemporary music and an all-male dance sequence that’s particularly memorable for Cardi B. Smith’s rhyming and lyrical virtuosity is vividly on display; and the actors move deftly from period to period (to Jamaican 18e folklore of the century), mythical characters and stories about misogyny and feminine strength.

However, despite the cast’s energy and director Indhu Rubasingham’s best efforts at injecting action, the story’s narrative shifts can sometimes feel too varied, detaching us from Alvita. It is a wonderfully written essay and treatise on independence and women’s and women’s insistence on freedom, but as a perfectly cohesive play. Willesden’s Wife is more of an arduous effort, no matter how dazzlingly paired Perkins’ performance and Smith’s songwriting.

We lose sight of supporting characters too quickly, and Alvita herself disappears near the end of the series, necessarily to keep up with Chaucer’s bizarre final sequence involving an old hag sexually and romantically trapping a young man. Structurally faithful to Chaucer too, Willesden’s WifeThe prologue is bizarrely long, taking up more than two-thirds of the show – its detail-packed nature and story itself is itself joked about by Alvita, reassuring the audience not to worry the performance is almost over.

A meta masterstroke is to have Jessica Murrain playing “Author”, allowing Smith herself to apologize for offending and perceiving flaws in her work, and brazenly charming the audience at the start and end. , when in the final moments all words are loud and exuberant supplanted by the delirious pleasures of song and dance.

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