About The Wife of Willesden

Thursday 5th January 2023

Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Yesterday, I saw a matinee of The Wife of Willesden at the Kiln Theatre. And everything I’d heard about novelist Zadie Smith’s debut, an energetic rewriting of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale, is true. Here are some adjectives, a word cloud, that describe this joyous show: hilarious, raucous, wicked, brassy, boozy, barmy, barnstorming, bawdy, belting, brio, rambunctious, crude, feminist, fun, electric, entertaining, enjoyable, vibrant, candid, sex-positive, and of course Chaucerian. Originally written to celebrate the Borough of Brent’s Year of Culture in 2020, and first staged in 2021, the play is brilliantly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, who with designer Robert Jones, has transformed the Kiln auditorium into the Sir Colin Campbell pub — which gives a really immersive feel to the 95-minute production. The show stars Clare Perkins as Alvita, in a dazzling and charismatic performance which updates the original character to one who is both instantly recognizable and thoroughly contemporary. Her performance also emphasizes the show’s central point: it gives voice not just to female sexuality, but to black women’s sexuality (with some colonial history thrown in). The theatrical devices — Smith herself appears in a framing context and Queen Nanny of the Maroons, the early 18th century Jamaican rebel, takes the place of Chaucer’s Arthurian Guinevere — work brilliantly. The performance rocks the theatre with laughter, and some moments are genuinely moving as well as psychologically acute. This is the best hymn to female sexuality and wisdom since Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia. Great stuff.

© Aleks Sierz

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