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Posts Tagged ‘Zadie Smith’

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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I haven’t read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel and I didn’t see the 2002 TV adaptation, so I come to this stage version fresh. It’s also my first visit to the reopened and renamed Kiln Theatre, appropriately located where the novel is set.

The story takes us from 1945, when Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal meet as the war ends and become lifelong friends, to the present day. We follow Archie, his mixed race marriage to Clara, daughter Irie and granddaughter Rosie and Samad and his wife Alsana and identical twin sons Magid & Millat. The twins’ lives take very different parts, one academic, the other radicalisation. There’s fleeting romance between Irie and the twins, with more than a fleeting outcome, and it looks like history might repeat itself with Rosie. There are significant stops in 1975 and through the eighties to 1992, with references to the music, TV and events of the time, like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I don’t know whether it was Zadie Smith or playwright Stephen Sharkey who had the ideas of Kilburn bag lady Mad Mary as a narrator, and framing the story in flashback with Rosie a dentist, in a coma after an incident. They are both good ideas, though the latter needs more clarity in staging. The addition of songs by Paul Englishby and the excellent movement by Polly Bennett add a playfulness which I very much liked and seemed to suit the sweep of the story. Indhu Rubasingham’s staging has great energy, pace and humour; I particularly liked the walks back in time and there’s an hysterical scene in a hairdressers.  It’s extremely well performed by a uniformly excellent cast.

There’s a limit to how much story you can tell in a couple of hours and adding a significant amount of music reduces it even more, so those who know the book may struggle with the inevitable filleting, and I’m told it has less bite than the novel, but I thought its ambition paid off and it proved to be populist, entertaining fare, a celebration of multi-cultural Kilburn and a welcome part of the reopening season. I’ve been going here for more than 30 years and I very much like the new theatre, though in truth it’s more Islington than Kilburn. I do hope the name change protestors will move on. I wouldn’t have changed it myself, and it could have been handled better, but what matters now is what’s on the stage, and this fits it well, and the future programme is looking very promising indeed.

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