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A CurtainUp London Review
The Canterbury Tales
Mike Poulton was commissioned by the RSC to write a new adaptation for the stage of The Canterbury Tales of which, although the work was unfinished, the tales number almost forty. Poulton's adaptation includes twenty three of the tales. The best known are the bawdy, rumbustious stories of cuckolded men and lusty young wenches like The Miller's Tale and The Merchant's Tale or those stories taken from Italian sources of knightly chivalry and high etiquette.
Chaucer's work is based on the premise that a group of pilgrims were travelling on horseback from a tavern in Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, to the shrine of the then recently martyred St Thomas à Becket and decided to pass the time on the journey by telling each other stories. Each pilgrim is identified with an occupation and their tales reflect this. Country folk tell bucolic, graphic tales while learned scholars tell tales of erudition and the religious, tales of great piety. The plays are tackled in chronological order as they appear in the book, a detail which places two of the best known, The Knight's Tale and The Miller's Tale in the first act of the first performance. Chaucer's work is not just a collection of stories but a social commentary on England in the fourteenth century with detailed occupational information about people like the Pardoner (Dylan Charles), a seller of fake relics so that sinners could "buy" their redemption.
The ensemble performances are outstanding as we have come to expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company but what makes the production outstanding are the inspirational directorial touches. There are moments of modernity and wit. Chaucer's own tale of Sir Topaz is delivered as a rap, Absolon (Michael Jibson) the would-be lover and dupe in the Miller's Tale appears with long red flowing hair and a round face, he is Mick Hucknall of Simply Red.
The plays open with Chaucer's famous prologue spoken in the original Middle English and just as we imagine we might need surtitles to adapt to these strange words, the cast switch to a more modern translation. However by the end we are familiar with words new to most twenty first century ears, to swynk and to swyve, the first meaning to work hard, to labour and the second to copulate.
The opening tale, The Knight's Tale mounts a joust with men on stilts with silk canopies over the backs of the horses in a staging that takes one's breath away. In the Franklin's Tale some of the action is played out in shadow puppetry but the exuberant chicken chorus of the Nun's Priest's Tale reminded me of a hilarious cross between the pigeons in The Producers and The Muppets. This is the tale of the Cockerel Chanticleer.
Some tales show attitudes unacceptable today. The Prioress's Tale is of a Christian child murdered by Jews and grossly anti-Semitic. If I am unhappy with anything, it is with the change in emphasis which has resulted from the re-writing of the tales. I have studied only a few of these tales but one of them was The Clerk's Tale. This anachronism of a story tells of a swyneherd Grisel who is selected by the Lord of the Manor to be his wife. He tests her obedience by taking away her children to be killed, divorcing her and sending her back to her father without even her underclothes. Years later he summons her back to wait on his new bride who turns out to be the daughter she thought had been killed. She obeys throughout and is finally honoured by her husband. But what about the lost twelve years when she was cast back to the pigs? Now this tale was staged in an African setting -- why? Is this kind of treatment of women more acceptable in Africa? I don't think so. I noticed an icy, unengaged silence in the theatre when this tale was played. My own main quibble was in dressing Griselda in a white dress when she was living with the pigs and another white dress with a bit of lace when she was the Lady of the Manor. She needed to be covered in mud in her first existence. There was a lack of contrast between what should have been the grandeur of the manor house and the utter squalor of Griselda's hovel.
For my money Part I is finer than Part II but any unevenness is also Chaucer's as the tales are played in order, although there is some doubt about this order. This has to be the case because some tales like The Reeve's Tale is a response to The Miller's Tale and features a Miller's wife and daughter succumbing sexually to a pair of students. Although Chaucer's work was unfnished, Doran gives us a fitting climax as the pilgrims reach the martyr's tomb and each lights a candle there, irrespective of their social standing, this is a unifying moment. It is a moving finale. I hope that The Canterbury Tales will find a London audience and that people will be inspired to return to a good translation of the original tales.
A note of caution, should you be considering taking children, that the sexual staging is very explicit and realistic. Gregory Doran's boisterous production matches the lively stories which predated printing in England and were designed to be told by storytellers.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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