The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer in a new version by Mike Poulton
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and touring
Here is a very impressive production from Northern Broadsides. Sixteen actors on stage giving us god knows how many characters, all doing what Broadsides does best: making the inaccessible accessible.
Added to Mike Poulton's treatment of Chaucer's great English classic is some stunningly beautiful music and harmonising, composed by director Conrad Nelson (thank goodness health and safety still allows an excess of talent - we last saw Nelson giving a superb Iago in the Broadsides production of Othello!).
In fact Nelson's direction is awe inspiring. He moves his sixteen players like a chess grandmaster. Each is fully engaged in whatever he or she is up to at the time. The whole is greater than the parts. Wonderful stuff.
We see the stories flow by and are delighted by them, the ensemble and each actor as he or she takes the opportunity to shine. Shine they do! Although one monologue went through rather too many stage accents, including Oirish and Brooklyn if I'm not mistaken, think nothing of it; it detracted little. And this is a tip-top cast: if anyone tumbled or fumbled or mumbled or fluffed I missed it. Rather there is a real sense of exuberance pulsing from the stage and filling the auditorium.
And on top of all that, designer Lis Evans, like Conrad Nelson, has played her part impeccably. The stage is a litter of wood: boxes, tool shafts, yokes, all things treen and agricultural. And, like the actors, everything plays more than one role. Rarely have I been given so much pleasure by the playful use of simple props. I find myself comparing horses implied by pitchforks and others by scythes, marvelling at both and smiling at the memory. As to wardrobe - perfect. Think medieval woodcuts come to life!
In this brilliant production I'd suggest the Knight's tale could usefully be slimmed down. Three hours total is a long time for a show with no strong overall narrative and the lengthy opening story soon lost quite a proportion of the audience. Happily the rumbustious mucky stuff soon won them back.
There is a sense of contemporary and historical rightness about this show, Broadsides would do worse than bring it back every two or three years. It shows our culture and national character in a good light. And it's a smashing night in the theatre.
Running at Leeds until 17th April 2010
Steve Orme reviewed this production at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Reviewer: Ray Brown