The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Tom Daplyn
Theatre Delicatessen, Picton Place
Theatre Delicatessen's "found space" at Picton Place - the upstairs room of a nondescript office building just behind Oxford Street - has already hosted an intensely brilliant revival of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur. There, the audience were sat in rows along opposite sides of the room in which the gruesome "party" was being held. Now, for a new version of The Canterbury Tales, we sit in various nooks and crannies on three sides of the space, and a bar has been installed in one corner serving ale, mulled wine and elderflower cordial throughout the proceedings. It certainly gives a new meaning to pub theatre. The intention is to spirit us back to the very Southwark tavern in which, in Chaucer's original, the idea was first proposed that the pilgrims compete to tell stories to pass the time on their journey to Canterbury. So the actors hang around the bar when not involved in the scene, and burst into easy songs in between each tale; and we're encouraged to fill our glasses whenever we like, while the action carries on around us.
It's a raucous, hearty, simple and very enjoyable night. Tom Daplyn's adaptation doesn't mess too much with Chaucer, but translates most of the text into more modern speech (with the exception of the first twelve lines or so of the Prologue kept in the original middle English, which David Grenfell heroically delivers). Daplyn also promotes the character of Harry Bailey, the inn landlord in the original, to a type of narrator/chorus introducing each new character and tale and keeping the action moving forward.
Each character presents a tale, and manhandles their fellow pilgrims onto stage to portray whatever personnages the tale requires - so we end up with some very fresh, feminine old men, and some very hairy manly-looking wives. This is all part of the fun, and some excellent ensemble playing and a wealth of little directorial touches allow us to imagine the subtext of the various relationships among the band of pilgrims, as well as being involved in the surface tales we're being told. These range from pious to filthy, with the latter greatly in the majority - particular themes being lusting after wenches and bedding other men's wives.
There are morals to be spotted - particularly in the Wife of Bath's tale, and what a glorious pre-feminist figure she is - but the lessons all feel a bit reluctantly slotted in, whereas the bawdy is revelled in for its own sake. There is a fair amount of on-stage am-dram pretend-shagging; there are some double and plenty of single entendres; there are suggestive props. Daplyn's rhyming modern translation of the text is sometimes outrageous, with such gems as "he sneaked up behind her and grabbed her by the c**t" and "he slapped her on the shitter" sticking in the mind. It's not for the faint-hearted: the historical context doesn't lift the tone at all, or soften the effect of the content: but it just shows how long this stuff's been around. This show is extremely rooted in English traditions: the idea of multitasking travelling players, and theatre as rowdy pub entertainment in which all spheres of life are displayed. It reminds you of the vital democratic principle that's always been at the heart of playmaking.
The production also nicely highlights one of Chaucer's obvious concerns - the corruption of the church and of vain money-grabbing church officials. It makes you consider how similar these alehouse creatures really are to ourselves - only they're in a more oppressive age: not so much God-fearing as beaten about the head with God. Amy Tweed and Gemma Barrett excellently embody a Friar and a Summoner at each other's throats and making their tales out of the fact. Of a fine company, they and Bernadette Arthur all stand out, playing any number of scholars, maids and crones with clear delineation. The production's poor theatre aesthetic - minimal props and costumes, much actorly exertion to fill in the blanks - works brilliantly in this space and with this material. And, the music is wonderful: musician Gwendolen Chatfield provides an acoustic guitar underscore for all the action, and sings a gorgeous solo, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy. The company beautifully harmonise an a capella version of Scarborough Fair. And any historical play that features a twisted rendition of a Tenacious D number too, is all right by me.
Until 23rd April
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury