Charged with writing something to celebrate Brent being crowned London’s Borough Of Culture 2020, novelist and essayist Zadie Smith hit on the idea of adapting Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous character, the Wife Of Bath, into a North London lady of Jamaican descent for The Wife of Willesden. Smith brilliantly manages to maintain the iambic pentameter alongside the Jamaican patois, bringing Chaucer up to date but keeping the rhythm and rhyme of the original text.
But the real masterstroke was taking the story from page to stage. Smith’s adaptation is a script full of the magic of theatre with characters multi-rolling, curtains becoming togas and the Author looking up from her blog to bookend the play with an introduction and the traditional apology. The updating can sometimes feel like a modern translation, so faithfully does Smith keep to Chaucer’s original plotting and structure. But our antagonising antihero, Alvira, comes alive through the first-time playwright’s words.
But the overriding takeaway in The Wife of Willesden is how tiresomely timeless the theme of misogyny and toxic masculinity still is: from Arthurian legend to the pilgrimage trail to Maroon Town, Jamaica and The Kilburn High Road men are still men. Luckily, there are some characters out there, bursting with life, who are capable of taking them down, one husband at a time.
The Wife Of Willesden, Zadie Smith (Penguin)
Price: £5.99. Info: here
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES
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