The Canterbury Tales
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
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.