The Canterbury Tales
Stanwix Arts Theatre,
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The performance is billed as “The Canterbury Circus” and on entering the theatre the circus performance is already underway. It takes a bit of time to acclimatise though: the circus is more of a dark and grotesque carnival of exaggerated figures and sickly circus music; the pilgrims are already trying to catch our attention, gesturing–often lewdly– and commenting on the audience’s appearance: all very apt of course as in carnival everyone is an active participant, social class is at least temporarily destroyed and the grotesque is a part of the subversion in the sense that authority is humourless and sanitizes experience. I did like this dramatic focus on the carnival as The Canterbury Tales can be read as a moment when the full range of medieval society is introduced, but also the seriousness of the pilgrimage and hierarchy is gradually undermined and destroyed by the playful pilgrims; the production also catches Chaucer’s own self-deprecating irony: one pilgrim asks Chaucer, “Who are you?” Chaucer shrinks back and responds timidly, “No one.” And in a line to savour, Harry Baily, the host and ring master, tells Chaucer, “Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!”
Chaucer’s pilgrims are amongst other things a mermaid, ring master, spiv, camp aristocrat, scullery maid, circus mannequin, bearded lady, gypsy fortune teller and Chaucer, the narrator, is a clown, or the clown’s precursor, the carnivalesque trickster figure, causing mayhem, cackling at disorder and subtly subverting the story telling process. Another interesting part of the production was the juxtaposition of Chaucer’s voices and the pilgrimage with the voices of the 21st century media perhaps representing a breakdown of social distinctions in creativity; to this end, the performance contained a dizzying array of cultural references to develop the idea that technology is a carnival of ideas, including Family Guy, Alice in Wonderland, An Officer and a Gentleman, and at one point—I think during the Reeve’s Tale– a pilgrim sang the narrative to the tune to of one of Adele’s hits and it worked beautifully.
So, what worked and what didn’t? The production cannot be faulted for vitality and creativity—it was bursting with ideas. It wasn’t a monument to an ancient text; it took the spirit of Chaucer’s text and threw it about with youthful abandon: surely the right thing to do. The best parts were the bickering of the pilgrims between the tales and the simpler tales; in particular I’ll mention The Cook’s Tale which was very vulgar and very funny, the lady doing her best Father Ted: “I’m feckin’ funny, feck off!” At times though the cacophony of voices was just too much and it was hard to follow the narrative, and in particular The Knight’s Tale was difficult: too much action, too much noise and without prior knowledge of the tale, all but impossible to follow, or enjoy. However, I could always follow Chaucer’s own advice when introducing the Miller’s Tale: if you don’t like it, “Turne over the leef and chese another tale”.
Reviewer: Paul Rivers