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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE CANTERBURY TALES
at the Gielgud, London

THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE
By Jeff Lewoncyzk


A traveler's tale comprising the tales of its travelers, a moving and movable feast, a historical national anthropology - The Canterbury Tales was an ideal introduction to London theatre for an American (such as me) on his very first visit. In presenting the 600-year-old adventures of a motley group of Canterbury pilgrims, and the stories they share to while away the tedium of the trip, the Royal Shakespeare Company has spun theatrical gold from some of the healthiest hay in the English language.

Chaucer (played with humble cleverness by Mark Hadfield) is our narrator, introducing us to his fellow excursionists as they wend their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to pay homage to the martyred Saint Thomas Becket. The set is merely a grassy slope and a movable, sparsely-leaved tree; the true canvas of the action is the bodies and faces of the pilgrims -. known only by occupation, such as the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Manciple - who, in this version, double as characters within the tales themselves, leading to some stunningly expansive yet intricately detailed ensemble work on the part of the twenty-member cast.

In displaying Chaucer's heady brew of the sacred and the profane, this adaptation errs on the side of the latter, a decision that makes sound theatrical sense, considering some of the more reverent tales can be a bit of a slog to modern sensibilities (as evidenced by adapter Mike Poulton's decision to place The Monk's Tale - a digest of seventeen cautionary yarns concerning great men who fell - in the intermission, where the audience cannot be bored by it). There is much drinking and clowning and simulated fornication, and the tone of the production - under the joint direction of Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby - is not closed to modern allusion, including (heaven help us) a brief but bizarre turn into hip-hop. All is not comedy, though, and room is made for the grotesque anti-Semitism of The First Nun's Tale and the courtly romance of The Wife of Bath's Tale, among other diversions. Throughout it all Chaucer's poetry, though tidied up a bit in the adaptation, comes through intact, and proves to be less demanding than much of Shakespeare.

I chose to see the show's two separate parts on the same day (which came out to around six hours total), and the experience was just shy of overkill; by the time it began winding down, I was prepared to call it a night. But the play's finale, in which the pilgrims' arrival at Canterbury unleashes a torrent of ecclesiastical bliss, reminds you of why the travelers were in motion in the first place, and creates a beautiful ending for an exciting theatrical journey.

 


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