“Sorry, who did you say you were again?” asks one of the pilgrims, sidling up to Geoffrey Chaucer in one of several attempts to get the poet to divulge his identity. It’s a droll moment, typical of Mike Poulton’s joyous two-part adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it is also revealing. For Chaucer (Mark Hadfield), embedded with the pilgrims, is keener to observe than take part, and the show is partly about the role of the writer and the power of storytelling. He wanders among them, scribbling in his notebook, and this, together with the way the pilgrims squabble with one another and even with their own creations, reminds us that the Canterbury Tales reveal much about the storytellers themselves.
The adaptation celebrates too the contrasts in tone and character of the tales, from the pious to the eerie to the riotously bawdy. In an endlessly inventive production (directed by Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby) there is certainly no stinting on the lechery, with bare buttocks and “swyving” aplenty. Nicholas in “The Miller’s Tale” strums a suggestively placed lyre and sings about the habits of his lively little cock; “The Reeve’s Tale” ends in a glorious fest of farting, fighting and fornication. But there is also delightfully playful puppetry in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and a deeply disturbing atmosphere of hysterical piety in the Prioress’s anti-Semitic story.
The staging is full of witty little contemporary touches – Absolon in “The Miller’s Tale” attempting to thrust his lute like an electric guitar; Chaucer’s own tale turned into a rhyming rap number – yet this doesn’t destroy the sense of place and period. And it is performed with gusto by a superb ensemble. Claire Benedict makes an ample, womanly Wife of Bath in sharp contrast to Paola Dionisotti’s pinched, pious Prioress. Christopher Godwin smoulders peevishly as the Reeve and haughtily as the Physician; Dylan Charles as the Pardoner is so slimy you would swear he leaves a trail; Katherine Tozer plays a succession of sweet, wronged women. But the production, while it revels in human folly, also reveals human fragility. The struggle between the sensual and the spiritual is a running theme, culminating in a final scene in which the pilgrims kneel, chastened, in the majestic surroundings of the cathedral that is their journey’s end. ★★★★☆
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