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Posts Tagged ‘Clare Perkins’

Three years ago a stage adaptation of Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was part of the Kiln Theatre’s (re)opening season, now she’s written a new play for the same theatre based on Chaucer’s 600-year-old tale of the Wife of Bath. If this is as faithful to Chaucer as they suggest, he must be one of the most feminist and sexually explicit writers ever. Just a little bit of research supports the former, but suggests the latter is a contemporary interpretation.

When I walked into the Kiln auditorium I gasped. Robert Jones’ transformation from theatre to pub is one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen. A giant three-part bar the width of the auditorium and tables & chairs surrounded by benches replacing most of the stalls. Chaucer’s tale is being told in The Sir Colin Campbell today rather than the Tabard Inn 600 years ago. It’s written in verse with the author also a character, sometimes with her Mac at a bar table, introducing and concluding her piece. The barmaid is something of a Bett Lynch character, big hair and leopard print.

The Wife of Willesden, Alvina, is larger than life and loud, as fond of Baileys as she is of sex, five husbands and still counting. Her tale covers them all, as they come forward to play their part with all the other characters and a few symbolic ones, like St Peter and Jesus Christ. Her explicit description of sexual acts, comparing and contrasting husbands, might challenge the broadest of minds. She occasionally engages members of the audience, and bursts into song and dance randomly.

It starts like a ball of energy, and I was convinced I was in for a fun evening, but I’m afraid it wore off way before it concluded. It felt laboured and heavy-handed and certainly didn’t sustain its 100 unbroken minute length; I was bored rather than offended. Substance was replaced by crudity as it became a sex romp, an adult panto. Clare Perkins works very hard bringing Alvina to life, and the nine other actors playing 21 parts between them maintain energy and momentum way beyond the point at which I’d lost mine.

For me it showcased a lot of outstanding creative and performing talent, but on material that wasn’t really worthy of it.

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This is a fascinating, multi-layered play from American playwright Marcus Gardley, covering ground I haven’t seen on stage or screen or even in print. It gets a great production by the Tricycle Theatre’s AD Indhu Rubasingham, with a fine cast of British actresses (plus Paul Shelley!).

Gardley’s play is set in New Orleans in 1836, in the period between the Louisiana Purchase, when this chunk of America was sold by the French and soon became one of the United States, and the American Civil War. Under French rule, white men routinely had a second family by a black mistress so a mixed race of ‘free people of colour’ developed. Their lives would soon change when the US became a black or white society and it is during this transition that we meet placee (black concubine) Beatrice and her three daughters mourning the death of their white common law husband / father Lazare (whose body is onstage!).

Beatrice is determined her daughters don’t follow her into placage (concubinage) but Agnes rebels and gets her sister Odette to pose as her mother and sell her into placage. Third daughter Maude tries but fails to prevent this. Somewhat ironically, these women have a house servant who is a slave, but she is a strong woman who has a big influence on them all. Beatrice has two other women in her life – her mentally unstable sister Marie Josephine, who causes a fair bit of havoc, and her friend La Veuve, who she is forever sparring with. We even get Lazare’s ghost for good measure.

Tom Piper opens up the Tricycle stage with a simple but clever white balcony and curved staircase; I’ve never seen it look so big. It’s great to see a cast of Black British women relishing these meaty characters. Tanya Moodie is, as ever, magnificent as the servant Makeda, deeply moving when she is finally free. Martina Laird is strong and defiant as Beatrice and Clare Perkins’ madness as Marie Josephine convinces. Amongst the daughters, Ayesha Antoine is hugely impressive as rebel daughter Agnes, with a combination of cheekiness and determination.

A fascinating piece of social and political history, with a nod to Bernarda Alba and an autobiographical dimension to the characters, and a great piece of family history. The Tricycle’s on a roll.

 

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