Bringing Chaucer’s epic story of pilgrims wending their way towards Canterbury to the stage is a gargantuan project, especially when you intend to use almost all of the tales. But this is exactly what the RSC has done, using 20 actors, three musicians, three directors and nearly six hours of stage time. Split into two self-contained productions (Part I and Part II), Mike Poulton’s adaptation features tales of high drama and chivalry, bawdy naughtiness and farting. Matthew Amer spent half his day at the Gielgud press performances.
Six hours is a long time to spend in a theatre, but in the hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the time flies by. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Chaucer’s tales has lost much of the original language – the bane of many an English student’s life – but has kept the essence using rhyme and pronunciation. Adrian Lee’s music, played on and off-stage by a trio of talented musicians, adds to the experience of stepping back into the 14th century.
Chaucer, played with a lovable wit by Mark Hadfield, joins his pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, and as he tells his tale about the pilgrims telling tales, so the pilgrims’ tales are told. Are you following?
It is not just the tales that take centre stage though. As the travellers make their way, so they bicker and banter, josh and cajole, making their trip as enjoyable as the stories they tell. The ensemble cast perform miracles playing myriad roles – including Dylan Charles as a gloriously insipid Pardoner and Michael Matus as a Monk desperate to tell the dullest of tales – and bringing life to every one.
The use of three directors is evident in the production’s deliberate effort to give each tale its own flavour. Inspired staging including hand puppets, shadow puppets, stilts, music, masks and even a 14th century rap allows each story a life of its own; reflecting the style of Chaucer’s original.
The wonder of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is its timeless nature. Stories that take central themes of lust, greed, love, honour, gentility and envy appeal to all ages of man.
Among the most famous of the tales; the Miller’s and Rever’s tales are performed at their bawdy best with all manner of sound effects added for good measure, the Nun’s Priest’s tale features muppet-style singing chickens to warn of the power of flattery, and the Wife Of Bath – she of the five husbands – tells of what women want.
The production’s pace never drops – with that many tales to tell, it can’t afford to – and the occasional knowing nods from Chaucer and the other characters only serve to endear them more to the hearts of the audience.