Our very own theatreCAT Libby Purves reviews Zadie Smith’s play The Wife of Willesden at the Kiln Theatre.
The Wife Of Willesden
Until 15 January 2022
Zadie Smith humbly refers to her first play as more like “homework” than the novelist’s usual dread of a blank page. Chaucer, after all, laid down its tale, framework and attitudes 600 years ago with the Wife of Bath. She entertains fellow pilgrims on the Canterbury road with a long personal prologue about her five husbands, cheerful attitude to sex and clear-eyed view of male delusions. And for those who have read Chaucer, probably long ago, it is remarkable how close Smith stays both to the spirit and the stories in this deft and jolly modernization.
The rumbustious Clare Perkins in her tight red dress and Cockney-Jamaican patois may refer to wifi, buses, Jordan Peterson, and other pillars and plagues of modern life but she’s gloriously Chaucerian all the same. Attitudes to clerics, St Paul, all-male theoreticians, and female prudes, annoying husbands, and – emphatically – a woman’s right to sexual pleasure are all there. Especially the latter: if I was a man her line “Your body is my playground!” would set me trembling with nervous apprehension. She’s a bit Donald McGill that way. But it’s the intelligence, the witheringly female perception, and realism, that are at the heart of the character.
The setting is glorious. She dominates a lovely, bottle-lined, patched-carpet London pub set by Robert Jones, conjuring up each husband, best-friend and pious auntie from the locals as she lays out her life story and robust views in the first hour, and finally in the last half-hour turns the lot of them – carnival-costumed- into the characters of the actual tale she tells. It is the old one about the knight forced to wed a “loathly woman” who then becomes lovely, transposed from King Arthur’s Court in Chaucer to 18c Jamaica with magnificently poetic patois.
This is, deliberately, the Kiln’s joyful invitation to its local multicultural community to come back and come round to rejoice, and I hope very much that a lot of it turns up, beyond this opening night’s theatre regulars. It’s selling like mad, I hope to some big local groups with discounts, but seats are always reasonable here and go down to £ 15 full-price: and frankly, I’d go for the gallery or the back stalls anyway for a better view, and avoid the sides if you can’t get one of the pub tables. It would be a pity to miss any of the pantomimic larking or have to keep standing up and craning as I did.
But wherever you are, it’s fun and refreshingly faithful to the ancient larkiness of working-class England. Among the ensemble with the wonderful Perkins, I especially liked Ellen Thomas as Aunty P and the Old Wife, and Marcus Adolphy as, among other things, a black Jesus. Andrew Frame, as the lone straight-white-middle-class male among her wives, is also shamelessly funny in his various humiliations. But they’re all great, and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction ( movement and fight directors have been painstakingly at work) is creative, fast and funny. You get the sense that the fun they’re all having absolutely includes and invites you. That means a lot.