Canterbury Tales

Tue 7th – Sat 11th February 2012

reviews

Jemima Hodkinson

at 02:38 on 8th Feb 2012

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It had moments of slack pace, and felt slightly too long, but this was a production saved by the strength of the whole cast as an ensemble and the individual talents of some of its actors. Music (composed by Hannah Connor) was integrated well into the piece, and at certain moments greatly enhanced it. All in all, this was an enjoyable evening, with the varied performance styles generally complementing the variety of the tales themselves.

My feeling for this production was not so sanguine five minutes before the curtain-up, as the director saw fit to ‘break down the fourth wall’ (I think that’s how they say it) before the play had even begun: cast members wandered through the audience, attempting humourous conversation with unsuspecting theatregoers. This practice never fails to make me cringe, particularly when (as in this case) the intended purpose is unclear...though perhaps that’s just my English awkwardness, as the middle-aged couple behind me were roaring with laughter as they chatted to the Wife of Bath.

The play opened with a passage in the original language, which is always a joy to hear, and though I hadn’t heard Mike Poulton’s adaptation before, I found it pitched just right (especially for the bawdier tales). Indeed, the first half was dominated by the rip-roaring Miller’s and Reeve’s tales; the ensemble seemed best suited to these tales, and although the pace was rapid, the meaning of the poetry was not lost in its rhythm (as it seemed to be in parts of the opening Knight’s Tale). The Knight’s Tale seemed a little wan next to these intensely physical tales, but it had one lovely moment of stylistic inspiration in the slow-motion joust, which had horses played by members of the cast.

The Prioress’ Tale rounded off the first act with a well-executed change of pace. Puppetry and song added atmospheric eeriness, and (as in all her roles) Kassi Chalk was masterfully poised and controlled as the prioress. Some members of the cast were very strong throughout – I enjoyed Oliver Marsh’s lovestruck Palamon as much as his rude monologue rebuffing the Friar in the second act. Others clearly suited certain styles better than others – James Evans seemed a bit lacking in passion as Arcite, but was quietly excellent as the aloof Pardoner. Jack Johnson managed to pitch the exaggerated drunkenness of the Miller well – amusing without being overwrought.

Of all the styles of theatre demonstrated in the piece, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the musical interpretation of the Manciple’s Tale the most. Puppetry and stylistic costume clearly conveyed the simple story, while the dance numbers gave a sense of humour which intensified the tragic moral of the ending.

There were some slack moments between tales, and occasionally the staging looked a little rushed. It could have also been one tale shorter, perhaps – the tales which made full use of the ensemble worked best, and those which didn’t (like the Knight’s tale) seemed to lack energy in comparison. However, this was an entertaining combination of comic and tragic tales, imaginatively staged, and managing to use a variety of theatrical styles without feeling like a canter through a drama syllabus. The baring of bottoms (in the Miller’s tale) certainly did Geoffrey justice.

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Marion Pragt

at 12:35 on 8th Feb 2012

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Before the beginning of The Canterbury Tales, members of the cast were already present in the auditorium to bring the audience - some of whom were visibly charmed by the Wife of Bath’s hopping up and down the stairs, while others looked slightly taken aback – into the required medieval mood.

Indeed, the medieval mood would be there for the whole night. I, for one, was happy to hear Freddy Sawyer in his role as Chaucer introduce the Tales in Middle English, after which the cast moved on to use a more modern language. Chaucer, who is seen writing the tales down while moving between different scenes, interacting with both storytellers and actors, was himself ironically incapable of telling a story that could please the pilgrims.

On the beautifully crafted stage, the interplay between the pilgrimage and the different tales was often disorderly, the storytelling sometimes being drowned out by the movements of other cast members. While the tales in which the whole cast participated were most engaging, individual actors stood out too. James Evans played the Pardoner with the ease and confidence of a Wildean gentleman, while the Wife of Bath (Juliet Cameron-Wilson), flirtatious and powerful at the same time, slightly overdid her role. Vivid and boisterous, this was a cast much better at the bawdier than the darker tales, delivering sometimes impressive and at other times more mediocre acting. The loving or pious moments in some of the tales lacked tenderness and felt overdone, and the echo used in the Knight’s tale during the speeches of the Greek gods was not a great idea. The use of puppetry was imaginative, with the white crow endearing the public, although one wonders if more could have been made of it.

At first, laughs were occasional and tentative, but after the infamous Miller’s tale and the Reeve’s tale, which included a wild chase through the audience, chaos and hilarity were complete. The audience was treated with much bawdy humour, frequent miming of unspeakable activities and, beware dear reader, some flashes of bare flesh. While this may have been too much for the taste of some, the cast did certainly succeed in its aim of staying true to Chaucer, while perhaps also showing that 14th-century people are not that different from us.

Be that as it may, the Prioress’s tale, in which the devil orders a group of Jews to murder a (puppet) child, showed something different. One could wonder whether staying true to Chaucer is justified in this case, but leaving aside that question, one does hope that at least here medieval and modern audiences do differ. While this tale may have been outrageously frightening and funny for 14th-century Christians, it was the seemingly matter-of-fact depiction of Jews as evil-doers that would shock a modern audience, much more so than the bawdy humour of other tales ever could. Well-placed as the last tale before the interval, it was indeed watched in a deep silence.

Although it was not without imperfections, this performance of The Canterbury Tales fulfilled its promise of delivering a mix of light-hearted and darker tales using different styles of theatre. The live music throughout the play worked especially well and the Manciple’s tale with its singing and dancing provided a delightful ending.

All in all, a fine and entertaining performance that deserves a bigger audience than it got on the opening night, which managed to bring the colourful Canterbury Tales to life once more.

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