Willesden’s Wife at the Kiln Theater
If you’re craving some festive debauchery – whether it’s your return to live theater, without social distancing, or as an alternative to the seasonal Panto – but craving a little more literary fodder in your entertainment regimen, this show is made for you. There are certain self-righteous gags that reveal the commissioned nature of the work (which celebrates Brent’s role as London Borough of Culture) but the beauty of paying homage to Chaucer Canterbury Tales is that it offers a proven story device that can pretty much handle any daytime trope.
With the mix of Clare Perkins’ energetic and towering performance as Willesden’s wife Alvita and director Indhu Rubasingham’s masterful world-building, I challenge the crowd to not be happy. Rubasingham’s directing is fun and clever in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously – downright fulfilling its duty to entertain.
The Kiln space is transformed in a joyful and immersive way with designer Robert Jones ‘vision of the Pilgrims’ Tavern. No panto-esque participation is requested from the public but there is a feeling of festive intimacy (without the cringe) thanks to the set-up. (I consider it bordering on a spoiler if I say more on the subject but, for me, the circular seating provided the best view of the house and kept me happy in the shade where I prefer to be. If you like being as close as possible to the action (but not exactly part of it), you can select seats on the stage at ground level or reserve a table on the stage).
Bearing in mind that Zadie Smith’s screenplay is based on a 14th century poem told from a woman’s perspective, it would be easy for a theatrical performance to fall into a ‘lecture mode’ narration. Moreover, given the restrictions of the last two years on the size of the actors, one could imagine a sort of performance of spoken poetry with possibly a few skits illustrating the references. As in Chaucer’s tale, the woman walks away and approaches the characters in her life as well as the legendary characters. As Alvita takes the mic and weaves a thread that is both consultative and provocative, the tales of the tale allow all kinds of wonderful scenes to be played out on stage.
Rubasingham’s Brecht-like ability to rely on the transformation of props for sketches in the central vanity is always a pleasure to watch – his staging is simply so skillful and intelligent that there is a magical moment. of joy to contemplate it. The play itself, however, does not contain a wide enough range of emotional notes to show the nuance capacity of the magnificent Clare Perkins, or her director, on this occasion. After all, Smith adapts a story told – and very well told – by a woman about his life. This is, of course, a story relayed to a captive audience (whether the Pilgrims stopped on the Canterbury Way or enjoyed a Kilburn lockdown). While we in the theater, like those in the tavern, are transported by her stories, we do not see any development or change in the storyteller herself. I don’t think this is particularly important and I doubt that a character arc was intended by the writer, but it does make the show feel more like a quick-witted cabaret think tank than to a play. The personalities we are honored with are enormous; the fierce and funny characters; electric and skillful performance – but it’s not a layered drama in which we see psyches on display or lives transformed.
While the original story of Chaucer The woman of Bath was among 23 others and presented in the larger context of different perspectives on the same theme so that readers may notice sometimes conflicting visions of society and humanity, Willesden’s wife is a singular story centered on the point of view of a character and it is she who speaks the most; which means a lot of storytelling but limited conflict or resolution. Nonetheless, Alvita’s characterization is convincing, even if the bizarre ultra-local or ultra-topical joke (made by her BFF Zaire [Chrystal Condie]) may feel too cliquey with the here and now. I don’t think this play, in its current form, will travel or last as long as it inspires, but I do think it will keep many London viewers entertained and uplifted for the duration of its airing, and more.
Review by Mary Beer
A true local legend. Married five times. Mother. Lover. Aunt. Friend. Alvita will tell anyone in the pub about her life – there is no shame in her acting. The question is, are you ready to hear it?
Because this woman has the gift of chatter: she can rewrite mistakes into triumphs, turn pain into parables, and her love life is an epic poem. They call her Willesden’s wife …
A play that celebrates the human talent for telling elaborate stories, especially about our own lives. Critically-acclaimed, multi-award-winning author Zadie Smith makes her playwright debut, transporting Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath to the 21st century in North West London.
Cast: Marcus Adolphy (Winston / Mandela / Black Jesus), Jessica Clark (Polly / Sophie), Crystal Condie (Author / Zaire / Queen Nanny), George Eggay (Pastor / Eldridge), Andrew Frame (Ian / Socrates / Bartosz), Scott Miller (Ryan), Clare Perkins (Alvita – Willesden’s Wife), Hussina Raja (Asma), Theo Solomon (Darren / Young Maroon / Colin) and Ellen Thomas (Aunt P / Old Wife).
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham; Designed by Robert Jones; Lighting design by Guy Hoare; Composition and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham; Associated with costume design by Kinnetia Isidore; Casting by Julia Horan CDG; Direction of movement by Celise Hicks; Combat leadership by Kev McCurdy; Dialect and Vocal Coach Hazel Holder; Associate Director Hannah Hauer-King.
Kiln Theater presents
in association with Brent2020, London Borough of Culture
Adapted by Zadie Smith
Excerpt from THE BATH WOMAN by Chaucer’s
November 11 – December 24, 2021
Press night: November 17 at 7 p.m.