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Theatre Review: The Wife of Willesden is an old wives tale with a new look

Zadie Smith's modern, relocated take on Chaucer's The Wife of Bath is a bold reimagining.

Marcus Adolphy, George Eggay, Andrew Frame and Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden Photo: Marc Brenner

The Wife of Willesden
Kiln Theatre, London, until January 15

When it comes to first-time middleaged playwrights, I guess they’re either Hilary Mantels or Zadie Smiths.

Before The Mirror and the Light opened in the West End, Hilary breezily announced that she wished she’d started writing for theatre a lot earlier and what fun it all was.

Then, after a number of critics failed to share her enthusiasm for what she’d come up with, the play’s run was curtailed – officially because of uncertainty over Covid.

Zadie approached things with more trepidation, saying writing for the stage had increased her respect for playwrights, adding – with some anguish, I suspect – that she had no intention of writing another one.

Smith has taken on an almighty challenge with The Wife of Willesden, her modern, relocated take on Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, that she got talked into doing as part of Brent being named the London Borough of Culture. She has clearly found in Indhu Rubasingham an experienced, if, I suspect, highly exacting director.

The production has a lot to be said in its favour, not least Robert Jones’ set, which turns the whole theatre into a vast pub, modelled on the nearby Sir Colin Campbell, complete with a bar and the punters at the front, supping pints at tables.

Chaucer’s original focuses on an outspoken woman named Alvita, talking about how awful her husbands have been, and, 600 years on in Smith’s adaptation, it’s clear from Clare Perkins’ long monologues that men are still behaving every bit as appallingly.

I suppose the problem with the piece is that if you aren’t intimately acquainted with Chaucer it can all mean very little, and, as for all the pub banter, whether you choose to take Chaucer into account or not, it is just a wee bit dull.

As a middle-aged first-time playwright myself, with Bloody Difficult Women opening in London in the new year, I’d say, by the way, I am more of a Zadie than a Hilary. I honestly don’t know why anyone would volunteer to go through this horrifying ordeal!

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Media/Getty Images.

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