The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Mike Poulton
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and touring
Four years ago Mike Poulton came up with an epic, two-part version of The Canterbury Tales for the Royal Shakespeare Company which had a run in the Swan at Stratford before transferring to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. It was so stylishly and cleverly written that you didn't have to see both parts together and you could watch the second before the first without losing any understanding of the production.
Now Poulton has condensed the behemoth into a two-and-three-quarter hour version for Northern Broadsides who approach the play with typical gusto, passion and enthusiasm. Unfortunately some of the charm and humour of the piece are lost in condensation.
According to the programme, Poulton's new offering is faithful to the original. However, I got the feeling that Poulton reveres Chaucer in the same way that purists venerate Shakespeare and detest any tinkering with the bard's works. This new version of The Canterbury Tales is well presented but that doesn't prevent sections of it being long-winded and wordy in its attempt to retain Chaucer's moralistic principles.
Although I'm not decrying the enormity of the task Poulton faced in abbreviating The Canterbury Tales, I feel he's made a strange decision in omitting The Nun's Priest's Tale. It was successfully included in the Stratford version and is the type of scene - with actors portraying a series of farm animals - which is usually executed so well in the New Vic's theatre-in-the-round.
Poulton has also decided to retain The Knight's Tale which doesn't get the evening off to a good start: the story about two imprisoned princes in love with the same girl is too heavy on nobility and classical mythology so that by the end it's bordering on boredom.
Poulton sticks to the customary order of The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale following each other. These two are the bawdiest, most humorous of Chaucer's stories yet putting them together in the first half means there's only The Merchant's Tale after the intermission which can raise a smile with its ribaldry and bad taste.
Let's face it, Chaucer himself recognized that the stories containing farting, lusty adventures and bad taste are the ones likely to receive the better reception; the tales would have been far less memorable if the indecorous ones had been excluded.
This new version is directed by Conrad Nelson, last seen at the New Vic playing Iago opposite Lenny Henry's Othello. Nelson who also composed the music knows how to use the space as well as get the most from the ensemble. But I feel there are times when the production would benefit from an injection of pace. And some of Nelson's inventive touches don't quite work, such as puppets in The Miller's Tale and the obligatory Northern Broadsides' clog dance in The Pardoner's Tale.
As for the performance, there's no faulting the actors' passion nor their vocal and instrumental skills which enhance the production enormously.
I just think some of Poulton's best work on The Canterbury Tales has been consigned to the waste paper bin rather than being retained on the page. It means the new version is good but it doesn't quite rise to the heights of the previous incarnation.
"The Canterbury Tales" runs at the New Vic until March 20th and then tours to Liverpool, Leeds, Scarborough, Southampton, Mansfield, Windsor, Salford, Kingston, Halifax
Ray Brown reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Reviewer: Steve Orme