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The Wife of Willesden
IF YOU want a really good romp for Christmas, go to the Kiln in Kilburn where Zadie Smith’s debut play The Wife of Willesden will blow the cobwebs away.
Translated and adapted from Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, this is the raunchiest of tales, presented in almost panto style, but touching on the profound nature of the female sex and the age-old game of power play between men and women.
Here we explore what women really want. It makes men tremble … oh, and it makes the audience laugh. It’s a production full of colour and music and unfettered stagecraft and is as feelgood as it is bawdy and as populist as it is literary.
Robert Jones’s set is a triumph and establishes period and location with compelling ease. This is the large, open-hearted bar of the Sir Colin Campbell pub in Kilburn High Road, designed to the nth degree with rich red carpets and crimson brocade drapes, screaming to us of pre-covid freedoms and exuberant personalities waiting to hold the floor.
The set takes over the stalls and immerses the audience, while the massive bar, loaded with thousands of gleaming bottles, awakes in us all the fondest of memories.
This is Zadie Smith territory, and she knows it inside out, bringing us a passionate depiction of modern pre-pandemic Willesden that equates so closely to Chaucer’s portrayal of 14th century Kent that it dissolves the intervening years.
The play is actually a single person narrative. A more original play might have given us a multitude of stories from different characters, but this piece is true to Chaucer and his literary rather than dramatic power.
Clare Perkins, as the sexually rampant, five times married wife, has a ball. Speaking as easily in verse as if it were the everyday language of Willesden High Road, she plays her audience — and bowls over her men — as if this were the prime purpose of life and we love it.
The experience is more cerebral than sensual, despite the theme, but, when Smith adapts the Chaucer text to take us to hot, colourful Jamaica instead of the original Arthurian England or when the cast recreate the European classical world by forming tableaux of Greek statues accompanied by the original Ben Hur theme music, the theatrical effects come into their own and take us with them.
Crystal Condie, dressed unmistakeably as author Smith herself, introduces and ends the action as the controlling muse, only disappearing from the stage when Condie is called upon to play other roles, including a memorable performance as the revered Jamaican icon and leader, Queen Nanny.
The whole cast move from role to role with consummate ease, Marcus Adolphy bringing us an especially note-perfect rendition of Nelson Mandela, and director Indhu Rubasingham effortlessly maintaining a buzzing theatricality throughout.
For smiles and fun, it really works. A better play would deviate from Chaucer’s literary precision and single voice narration, but it’s a good night out nevertheless.
Ends January 15 2022. Box Office: email@example.com
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