CHAUCER’S ALYSON IN LONDON: Zadie Smith’s The Wife of Willesden, a transfer of the original 2020 Kiln Theatre/ Brent Borough of Culture production to the American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, and then to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 25 February-16 April 2023.
Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath has had more afterlives than she had husbands at the church door and company kept in her youth combined. Betsy Bowden’s 2017 The Wife of Bath in Afterlife: Ballads to Blake, remains a definitive study, and Marion Turner has just published a “biography” of Chaucer’s most (in)famous Canterbury pilgrim, The Wife of Bath: A Biography (2022). Zadie Smith’s 2020 stage adaptation of the Wife’s prologue and tale, The Wife of Willesden, finds a home in twenty-first century Willesden, a London municipal borough with a large Jamaican-British population, who proudly speak the Queen’s (now King’s) English with a clear unadulterated North Wezzian accent. A pub crawl lands a company of close to nine and twenty stage characters in the Colin Campbell on the Kilburn High Road as Polly Publican declares a lockdown, during which, at Polly’s urging, sundry folks start to tell their stories in hopes of winning a full English breakfast with chips.
The story telling contest starts off as a bit of a bust. Several men step forward and mansplain their tales to the women in the audience, or cockblock them from telling their own stories. Even worse, dewy-eyed lovers, sensing a possible Hallmark moment, detail how their relationships were always meant to be. Enter stage right, a full glass of Baileys in hand, Alvita (played by the truly astonishing Clare Perkins), a Jamaican-born British woman in her fifties, who knows a thing or two about the battle of the sexes and has more than a few scars to prove it—and who admits to being ten years younger than she really is. Unapologetic about everything in her life—her need for good sex, her clothing, her lifestyle, her motor, her speech, her general attitude, and her opinions about everything—she takes over the pub, and the story-telling competition, like an unstoppable force of nature. Alvita sets her sights on those who suggest double standards for what men and women can and can’t do, and on those who weaponize religion to the detriment of those, especially women, who don’t share their narrow-minded beliefs.
Chaucer’s Wife had to counter the dicta of clerkish authorities. Alvita butts heads with her own Bible-toting Aunty P, who cites chapter and verse to disapprove not only of her niece’s five marriages, but also of any sexual activity, whether within or outside of marriage. Chaucer’s Wife cited King Solomon’s harem to counter those who condemned multiple marriages. Alvita, refusing to be slut-shamed, looks to the sexual escapades of the much-revered Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder—"Now, you know Stevie’s had more than one wife!/Blindness don’t stop him enjoying his life”—as justification for having had (only) five husbands (so far!).
Chaucer’s Wife’s lengthy prologue is twice interrupted, first by the gender ambiguous Pardoner seeking marital advice, and then by the quarrelsome Summoner and Friar whose professional animosity spills over to the personal. All three have their counterparts in Smith’s play. The Pardoner becomes a charity chugger named Colin who’s afraid that his bride-to-be, Sophie, will own him if he follows Alvita’s advice—he even allows that such advice is a form of reverse sexism. The Summoner and Friar become a local bailiff named Bartosz with a thick Eastern European accent and Aunty P’s spiritual advisor, Pastor Jegede, a megachurch prosperity preacher, with all the vices of his ilk, and none of the virtues of a true man of the cloth.
Alvita’s prologue introduces us to her five husbands: Ian, an older white man; Darren, a young good looking bwoy; Winston, a Rastaman; Eldridge a wealthy gentleman in his fifties of Caribbean heritage; and Ryan, a Scottish student in his twenties doing his masters. We also meet Alvita’s supporters, her extremely shy niece Kelly, and her bestie, Zaire, who only wishes her life could be as rich as Alvita’s. Rounding out the cast of characters are several minor characters who appear in brief cameos to support or condemn Alvita, including God and Black Jesus (no less), along with St. Paul, Nelson Mandela, Socrates, and Arrius and Eriphyle (the last two by way of Ovid).