The Canterbury Tales

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On blind date Tuesday, JAMES STANIFORTH finds his evening with Chaucer sexy and funny, but not deep.

ADC, 7th – 11th February, 7.45pm, £6-10

Directed by Elizabeth Schenk and Katie White

[rating: 3/5]

This play is very much what it says on the tin. A faithful reproduction which demonstrates a real affinity with the original work, The Canterbury Tales delivers the audience an authentic dose of Chaucer. Stripping a substantial part of the dialogue directly from the text, Chaucer’s brilliance (if you care for him in the first place) shines through. However, as an adaptation, this play has a heavier burden to bear. Let’s start with the good bits.

Crucially, the double-layered effect of the original is reproduced well. We have stories simultaneously being told by onstage characters alongside the wider story of its reception by the ‘listeners’ onstage.

In a nice touch, this play has been set in the public house. The players sit around conversing, drinking, embracing and participating in enactments of the stories being told. The Miller (Jack Johnson) acts out his tale, and we can view the Knight’s (Jamie Hansen) disgusted reactions as other characters are drawn into his infective ribaldry. The Reeve’s (Abbi Chittock) riposte is accompanied by the sight of the Miller becoming increasingly agitated as his character is slandered. The production achieves that essential group dynamic which is humorous and involving.

Chaucer’s original content is also nicely transposed. The Miller’s tale is indisputably funny, a salve to the solemn chivalry of the Knight, and this episode is realised in all its grotesque hilarity on stage, the actors clearly revelling in their roles. In contrast, we have the more disturbing anti-Semitism of the Prioress’s Tale, which still has power to upset the viewer.

This is where the production is perhaps most successful: its selection and deployment of narratives from Chaucer’s vast tome, first to humour and then to distress the audience. The Canterbury Tales is undoubtedly an attractive and slick piece of work, nicely set and costumed, with definite moments of acting excellence (nods to Oliver Marsh as the Summoner and Rochelle Thomas as the Host).

However, it cannot be enough to simply have faithfully rendered Chaucer’s work onstage. If an adaptation is to achieve greatness it must actually and significantly ‘adapt’. This play suffers from a lack of inventiveness and ingenuity, and the audience is left with a conservative revision.

Which is all well and good, just not great. There are some exceptions – puppetry and musical renditions make an appearance (the songified Manciple’s Tale is truly exceptional) – but this originality needed to penetrate more deeply and comprehensively. The player’s Chaucerian bawdiness at times made the unfortunate transition into plain overacting. This uncovered a more fundamental problem with the play: the almost ubiquitous absence of subtlety. Each tale is exploited for its potential to excite or depress, rather than for the development of character which elevates Chaucer’s work into the canon of English literature. Any engagement with the players can be no more than superficial and one leaves feeling short-changed.

The Canterbury Tales is an aesthetically pleasing, accurate reproduction which – for those who relish in Chaucer’s scurrilous wit or satiric perspective – offers a couple of hours of smooth entertainment. However, to those looking for something deeper and more satisfying: look elsewhere.

  • birthday girl

    I'm so hot and delicate.

  • Fill me in

    Spot on review.

  • Anonymous

    James is fit.

  • wakim


  • Supernova456

    Fill the stadium then

  • David

    Nothing in this article has given me any idea what a drama degree entails, if you want to convince me that drama isnt ‘easy’ you have to do better than ‘we dont get to go to spain’ and being ‘introduced’ to a range of topics. Being introduced to climate change could mean anything from it being mentioned once all the way to an entire module devoted to it.

    Not to say I don’t respect drama but this article did not convince me it is in any way academic (again not a bad thing).

    • Lucy

      As a musical theatre student we had lessons such as buisiness in the performing industry business in general and historical context where we would take a play and do research into the origins of it and any political agendas such as climate change so therefore we are learning a semicolon about many a things from discrimination due to appearance (wicked) to the hippie revolution (hair). Is that better david

      • Lucy

        *great deal not semicolon

  • Guest

    Do what? Just because a degree is difficult doesn’t mean its worthwhile or useful after you graduate.

  • Wayne King

    So what? Just because a degree is difficult doesn’t mean its worthwhile or useful after you graduate.

  • senseofhumour

    tell me more about how you’re an expert in climate change now

    • David

      Or fracking, carbon footprints, feminism, marxism or capitalism. I mean from reading the list it seems like they had two modules on on global warming and on politics. How either of those relate to a drama degree is very unclear. I mean tbh I was aware of these topics years before I even came to uni so saying they are ‘introduced’ to them is really unimpressive because they are all large topics. Its like me saying as a biologist that i was introduced to animals, plants, and evolution.

  • Dave

    I think this is so true, everyone’s degree is important independent of what you study! Degrees aren’t easy and each one is at least a sign that you have chosen to rack up serious debt to get an education.. I agree and I’m doing science :)

  • Ben asdfg

    If you did a real degree you wouldn’t have to be so defensive 😉

  • David

    Drama has clearly taught you so much.. Just like how to form a solid argument about people telling you your degree is useless by attacking theirs… “Geography is colouring in maps. English is book club”. If you’re degree is really that great you should have been able to write this without moaning and bitching about other degrees.

    • Zoe Katherine

      She was obviously being sarcastic (an eye for an eye). Pretty obvious she wasn’t saying that with conviction… she was merely pointing out how degrees in the arts are treated like they’re just fun and games when that’s not the reality.

      • David

        David 1- The comment was pretty stupid though, I do biology but I have a reasonably good idea what kind of knowledge geographers and english majors will come out with. If the point of the article was to defend drama then it failed as I still have no idea what drama actually involves beyond acting. The spain comment was stupid as well, i mean I went to the beach as part of my first year but I spent the entire time counting limpets and barnacles, by attacking other courses it just looks like they dont have any real defense of their own.

  • David Seaman

    As an engineering student I find the concept of this article hilarious yet slightly irritating.

  • Reece

    As much as most degrees are important in some way shape or form, I have to disagree that they are all as hard…. I mean during my last semester I have been in uni from 9-6 every day! Yet I know people who don’t even have 2 hours a week!

  • Richard of the Dawkin

    This article just enforced my existing perception of what a typical drama student is, nothing else. The argument was also poorly structured which makes me wonder what you really are paying for.

  • Cantab

    Yeah but…you go to Royal Holloway.

  • carlo

    I read your article with an open mind, not having an opinion one way or the other. But your very poor case and your rubbishing of other subjects only proved to me that your flatmate was right!!

  • Emily

    Hilarious. You had to PAY to go to the theatre? How awful that must have been for you.
    Anyone with an ounce of common sense and awareness of the society they live in knows about feminism, climate change, fracking and the other things that drama has “opened your eyes to”.
    I agree, you probably have to work just as hard as most subjects and you’re probably just doing a degree you enjoy, but you haven’t convinced me (or anyone else by the sounds of it) that a drama degree is worth paying £27,000 for.

    • Sorry to break it to you

      Hilarious. You didn’t even read the previous sentence? They had to ‘pay’ to visit the theatre. Geography students were ‘paid’ to go to Spain. Basic understanding of English is hard I know.

      And I think it’s fair to say that a drama degree is worth paying £27,000 for. The Performing Arts sector is one of only two sectors that have actually grown during the economic crisis, that consistently returns three times what is invested into it. Compared to most other degrees…

      Drama is winning…

      • :)

        I wouldn’t pay a penny for a course that lasts for 3 years and only has enough material to fill one of those years if stretched.
        You have to know nothing about the real world to apply for Drama, and you finish Drama knowing just as little.

        Also as an Engineer I would probably find her knowledge and understanding of Climate change, Fracking, Carbon footprints, Feminism, Marxism and Capitalism hilariously lacking.

        • Sorry to break it to you

          You wouldn’t pay a penny for a course you haven’t studied and have no idea of the actual content of…

          In all honesty, this argument is awful, it’s poorly worded and structured and really does nothing for the course. Now I can’t comment on Royal Holloway, but the course I have studied requires a knowledge of the issues just to apply, let alone be accepted, and when you finish your understanding of such things will be greatly expanded. That’s without even mentioning the whole host of other social, political and psychological theories you study. Now I will never be as good at psychology as a psychologist, but I know a hell of a lot more about it than you do.

          It’s not for you, I accept that, and you don’t feel it would be something that would interest you. Does that mean that the course is not worth anything? To people who believe the ‘arts’ are pointless perhaps, if you wish to join that crowd be my guest. Unfortunately you will always be wrong. They aren’t pointless, they are a powerful force for change, and the fastest growing sector in the UK economy. The statistics and studies support that, it’s not worthless, it’s just not for you.

  • Lizard Squad

    If you think your degree is real, then you’re as stupid as your degree.

  • Not Matt

    it is not a real degree

  • jim

    In the end it isn’t us students you have to convince it’s employers, saying you learned about feminism and climate change isn’t going to go down well in a job interview.

    • Sorry to break it to you

      Read the Times Educational Supplement. There’s an interesting article in there that explains why employers are more interested in people who have explored Drama. Everyone has A*, employers want personality. When you go to your interview you aren’t going to talk about feminism, you’re going to talk about that project you ran with abused women to explore the issues surrounding abuse. The kids in care who didn’t want to talk to you at the beginning who by the end of the project were performing in front of an audience.

      They want to know that you can do something amazing with no resources, just think what you’ll do when they hire you.

      Oh, and it’s a drama degree, I think it’s fair enough to say that many people will be looking for jobs in the ‘drama sector’…

      Think before you make a fool of yourself.

  • Mich

    One simple message in this article. Don’t ‘assume’ you know everything about a subject… when you don’t do it! I find it funny that the people who have been slating this girl for not giving proper ‘evidence’ are the one’s who are backing up their claims with no evidence at all. Why do we think it’s acceptable to comment on other people’s situations without any knowledge of what they actually do?

    You would never dream of making these type of assumptions if it was based on somebody’s financial situation- “All people on benefits are less clever, because statistics show they don’t go to uni as much” or on their racial situation – “English people are less clever than Chinese people” why would you think it’s acceptable or appropriate to judge someone based on their subject choice? Seem’s pretty arrogant if you ask me.

  • T

    While this article leaves a lot of questions unanswered and doesn’t really say anything other than ‘We’re good!’, there is another issue here. People in the comments section seem to be obsessed with the idea of needing to be ‘convinced’ of the worthiness of a DRAMA AND THEATRE STUDIES (not just Drama) Degree at an academic university. Besides the fact that this degree is designed in the same way as any other degree (i.e. a geography degree is designed to improve one’s chances of working in that particular area of interest. So too is the Drama and Theatre Studies degree. Why is a Geography qualification somehow regarded as more worthy (or of more worth)?), and the fact that the department was recently ranked 4th in the country for its quality of its research output, why does it need justifying?

    As with any course in humanities, one of the most important elements for me is learning the skill of approaching issues, people, events, social hegemonies etc. from alternative and empathetic point of view, and understanding how something can affect other people. We also learn how to approach a myriad of issues and controversies through many different lenses and frameworks; for example, with Fracking, we may be able to discuss this issue through a political lense, and talk about the pressures governmental bodies experience from multinational monopolies who outweigh the positives over the negatives, while at the same time view it through the eyes of a local resident who doesn’t really understand what fracking is, but through some sense of loyalty to her local community feels pressure to fight against it. The theatre provides the perfect space to throw these kinds of issues in to dialogue with each other, and if you map out a historiographic timeline of the theatre it is clear to see that like other forms of art, it changes and morphs itself in response to the contemporary political, social, racial, cultural situation.

    David Foster Wallace starts one of his speeches with an anecdote:

    “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

    And this is essentially the purpose of a liberal arts degree such as Drama and Theatre Studies; to “learn how to think”, to choose how to construct meaning from experience and go through life with the ability to choose what to pay attention to, who to make sacrifices for, and essentially challenge our own horrible bigoted and stereotyped views that we all have. We have the opportunity to exercise control over how and what we think, and this degree gives us the first few baby-steps towards understanding certain choices we all make in life, and how the medium of performance can help challenge and resist them.

    And to those of you who question the necessity of a degree like this, and suggest that it is a waste of money, maybe you need to try harder to see the water.

    N.B This is not an “Acting” degree! We do not learn how to act. Plus, how reductionist is it to say ‘only acting’!? This demonstrates the unfortunate stereotype of the drama student which is not helped (and in some ways is only perpetuated more) by this article..

  • HS102

    I hardly think it’s fair to make such an issue about people criticizing Drama as a degree when you criticism other subjects in your own article. Is your subject better than theirs? If that’s what you think, then maybe you have more in common with your flatmate.

    And hold up on the ‘boring office job’ comment.
    1. Bullshit, I work in recruitment and I can tell you your degree will not get you a better job if you look outside the very small market of ‘theatre’. Your degree will mean close to nothing. Why? Because it’s not academic. It just isn’t. That’s not to say you haven’t learnt a lot of you’re not smart: you should be embracing the fact that it’s not academic. That’s what it’s about.

    2. I come from a theatre background and I work in a ‘boring office job’. But you know what? Society doesn’t work if nobody does the boring office jobs. So get off you high horse.

  • Geographer

    Geography is an important and relevant subject. Climate change, food security, water security, aid/development, geopolitical conflict, geographies of the global economy, etc etc… I won’t embarrass you further. Drama entails acting and reading, analyzing literature and writing. There’s no denying that this may be difficult, but why spend £27,000+ on that? Of course it’s great to study something that you are passionate about, but where’s the relevance of drama in the 21st century outside of the arts world? Where are the jobs besides sweeping up popcorn in Odeon on your Saturday nights?

    RHUL first year geographers were NOT “paid” to go to Spain- the trip was paid for.

    Claiming that first year geographers spent every night in Spain “getting pissed on sangria” is as broad and sweeping a statement as those made by people slating your degree; which your article is complaining about. Massive contradiction there, which really negates from your argument.

    You appear to be an extremely bitter individual. You have a couple of options. Either (a) grow up, crack on with your work and stop moaning, (b) drop out and get a job, you clearly regret your decision to ‘study’ drama or (c) of course, you could always study a proper degree…

    If you can’t handle the heat, don’t light the fire. Bit of drama there for you, write a play about it perhaps?

  • The.Greek

    Study physics then get back to me.

  • Ngu Ngoc

    Oh dear, you clearly demonstrated in this article how incompetent a drama student is. Work just as hard, that’s a bit ignorance is it? You obviously don’t know that a maths or physics student have many more hours of lecture and course work per week than a drama student (at least twice as many). Not to mention the amount of lab work and extra work they need to do to achieve a good grade. You compared your degree to Geography and English? Neither of them are considered to be a hard degree to get. Also Royal Holloway isn’t exactly a university to boast about. If uni introduced you to carbon footprints, feminism and capitalism then what on Earth did you learn before that?

    “My degree has also given me the confidence and skills to hold a conversation with just about anyone and helped me to sustain really intelligent conversations about such complex topics as globalisation and neuroscience.” This is hilarious… You may deem those conversation to be intelligent but I highly doubt the other person would agree.

  • T.P


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