Review: In ‘The Wife of Willesden,’ a Literary Marriage Falters

This April, in New York, when the rains have come and the winds have calmed and the cherry trees and hyacinths have hustled into bloom, theatergoers might find themselves making a pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, for the New York premiere of “The Wife of Willesden,” the novelist Zadie Smith’s adaptation of a lusty wedge of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” And despite the punch and panache of the play’s language, they might find themselves going nowhere.

As literary marriages go, one between Smith (“White Teeth,” “On Beauty,” “Swing Time”) and Chaucer, is in theory, of true minds. Though separated by some 600 years, both are keen stylists, eager comedians and dyed-in-the-worsted-wool humanists with a consuming interest in the varieties of emotion and experience. But marriage is hard and somehow Smith’s rendering — presented by BAM in association with A.R.T. — never quickens into life. “The Wife of Willesden,” Smith’s first play, is bookish bed death.

Smith, aided by the director Indhu Rubasingham, has updated the action to the present and the setting a few miles north, from a South London tavern to a pub on the Kilburn High Road. (Rubasingham is the artistic director of Kilburn’s Kiln Theater, where the play debuted in 2021.) In Robert Jones’s design, the pub expands across the whole stage floor with lamps and lanterns flickering high above. Chaucer’s text, even unfinished, extends to 29 pilgrims and a host. Here the cast runs to just 10, though audience members seated onstage at wooden tables, swell those numbers.

A prologue delivered by a character identified as Author (Jessica Murrain, charming in Smith drag), explains the circumstances. These pilgrims aren’t religious. (Unless drinking is your religion?) Instead, they are locals, out for a beer and a laugh and committed to a “lock-in,” a way to keep the party going long after closing time.

In Smith’s rendering, Chaucer’s tapestry has shrunk to just one thread, though arguably its most vivid. If you have read “The Canterbury Tales,” from the cheerful bawdry of the Miller’s tale to the formalities of the Knight’s tale, the Wife of Bath will have leaped off the page in her scarlet stockings. Earthy, contradictory, impulsive and self-aware, she seems effortlessly and shockingly modern.

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The Wife, or Alison as Chaucer calls her, advocates for female pleasure and female autonomy and has some tart words regarding the prowess of her elderly husbands. What does it mean to offer her a modern vernacular and wardrobe? Extrapolating from “The Wife of Willesden,” not that much.

Alison has been renamed Alvita. She is played with archness and authority and hip-swinging sass, shot through with vulnerability, by Clare Perkins, who has traded in those red stockings for a cold-shoulder dress and some very high heels. In Chaucer she is introduced as, “a worthy woman all her life.” Here: “She’s been that bitch since 1983.”

As in Chaucer’s poem, she prefaces her tale with what is essentially her life story, enlisting the pub’s patrons as her many husbands and various friends and acquaintances. (The ensemble is nimble throughout.) Smith’s language is jewel-bright, particular and lively, and Perkins’s performance is brassy and expressive. But every time the Wife addressed the Brooklyn audience — sometimes rhetorically, sometimes seeking an actual reply — there was no response to her call.

How to explain these connectivity issues? Smith’s vocabulary, which mixes North London vernacular and Jamaican patois, may be one problem. And the accents, however mild, might rattle unfamiliar ears. Then there’s the form, which attempts to expand the monologue into something more communal and multivocal. Rubasingham’s direction is busy. Maybe it’s too busy (there are disco songs and a haloed Black Jesus). And yet these efforts fail to lift this literary exercise to drama.

But the principal problem is the way that Smith has collapsed the now and the then. In the general prologue, the Author warns that audience members might feel surprise or offense at Alvita’s thirsty frankness:

“It’s worth remembering — though I’m sure you know —

When wives spoke thus six hundred years ago

You were all shocked then. The shock never ends

When women say things usually said by men”

Yet there’s no shock here. Alvita has been married more than most, sure, but her advocacy for equality, for freedom, for great sex is hardly radical now. Maybe it wasn’t even so extreme back then; the Wife became a favorite of balladeers. Her speech still has moments of ambivalence, as when she says that she found great happiness with a man who abused her. (Yes, he repented, but still.) And in the tale Alvita tells, about a soldier who rapes a young woman and is forced to learn what women really want, there remains no genuine justice for the victim. But Smith leaves this tension mostly unexplored and unresolved.

The play ends with Alvita and her husbands singing along to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” which is both apposite and wrong. The Wife of Bath is an everywoman, but she’s also a singular literary creation, a character who transcends her moment. She doesn’t really need the updates — or the knockoff Jimmy Choos — to speak to ours.

The Wife of Willesden
Through April 16 at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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