The Theatreguide.London Review
The Canterbury Tales
Gielgud Theatre Summer-Autumn 2006
This is not the musical comedy version of Chaucer that was a West End hit a generation back. This Royal Shakespeare Company production comes to London from Stratford in two three-hour evenings which are frequently very entertaining and almost as frequently tedious.
I really can't imagine anyone but Chaucer buffs wanting to see both halves, though one might prove a satisfying introduction to the first great masterpiece of English literature.
(A quick bit of literary history for those who want it: Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century, with the premise that a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury entertain themselves telling stories.
Chaucer's stated plan was four tales each from the thirty pilgrims, but he never finished the project, leaving us the frame and only about two dozen stories.
Scholars still debate the connections between tellers and tales and even the proper order of the tales, but it is universally agreed that the pilgrims are brilliantly characterised and the tales are a superb anthology of medieval fiction, from chivalric epic to dirty joke.)
The best thing about this production is Mike Poulton's energetic and witty adaptation, rhymed couplets in unobtrusive modern English with just the occasional bit of Chaucerian vocabulary or pronunciation (often in the service of a clever rhyme) to give it the right flavour.
The staging of the tales themselves (credited to three directors – Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby, though we're not told who did which) is generally rather uninventive. The tale is acted out, with the teller hovering about the edges providing narration.
As a result, the success of each episode depends mainly on the strength of the story itself, and generally the comic tales fare better than the serious ones.
The Miller's, Reeve's, Shipman's and Merchant's Tales, all involving husbands being comically cuckolded, are carried by their raw bawdy energy.
On the other hand, the Clerk's Tale of patient Griselda, the Prioress's openly anti-Semitic Tale, the Physician's story of a father killing his daughter to save her honour, and the Franklin's Tale of a romantic triangle resolved through honour all drag on long after having made their points.
The Knight's Tale, another romantic triangle, benefits from being a superior story and also from being first, when the Story Theatre technique still seems fresh. And the Wife of Bath's Tale of a callow youth taught proper respect for women is carried by a strong performance by Paola Dionisotti as his teacher.
A few of the tales are staged with some invention. The Nun's Priest's Tale, of a rooster outfoxing a fox, is told with puppets, the one ascribed to the pilgrim Chaucer is done as a totally anachronistic but lively rap number, and the Manciple's Tale of a bird punished for delivering unwelcome news is done (not particularly successfully) as a mock mini-opera.
With most of the cast doubling as pilgrims and characters in each other's tales, a few stand out. Paola Dionisotti is a simpering but hard-edged Prioress, Claire Benedict gives the Wife of Bath a lively West Indian flavour, Mark Hadfield is attractively self-effacing as Chaucer, and Barry McCarthy is the avuncular and peace-keeping Host.
Part One, with the Knight, Miller, Reeve, Clerk, Shipman, Prioress and Nun's Priest, has some of the best tales but also the dreariest. Part Two has Chaucer's rap, the Wife of Bath, Merchant, Franklin, Pardoner, Physician and Manciple - fewer high points but also fewer low ones.
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