Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 8 December, 2005

The Royal Shakespeare Company seems to have embarked on a comprehensive programme of maintenance of monuments of English-language literature. 2006's Complete Works of Shakespeare beano is preceded by a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and the company's Christmas fare consists of a big Dickens adaptation and an even bigger Chaucer adaptation. Mike Poulton's two-part playscript for The Canterbury Tales is principally drawn more or less verbatim from Chaucer's great verse collection of stories as supposedly told in turn by a group of pilgrims to while away the time as they journey towards the shrine of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. Poulton manages to attune us to the exaggerated pronunciations sometimes necessary for preserving Chaucer's six-century-old rhymes, whilst also taking the mickey out of occasional enormities.

Mark Hadfield is inspired casting as the poet/narrator. He not only bears a passing resemblance to portraits of Chaucer (accentuated by period costume), but he naturally strikes the right note of playfulness: on press night, when a prop pear from a previous scene lay in his path, he casually picked it up, polished it and offered it to the wooden hobby-horse he was "riding". Also delicious is Paola Dionisotti's strait-laced Prioress, muttering, "I'm beginning to wish I'd gone to Walsingham"; and anyone who objects to "colour-blind" casting would have their reservations swept away by the gloriously insatiable Wife of Bath as played by Claire Benedict, who is simply made for the part.

The cast of twenty get through almost as many tales: virtually all that survive, in fact, and in more or less the usual order (certainly at first). Consequently, there is doubling of roles galore: one minute Michael Jibson is strumming a lute, guitar-hero style, the next he is a Cambridge scholar vigorously "swiving" a local miller's wife. Gregory Doran and his directorial lieutenants Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby keep things lively and fluid wherever possible, because they know that this dramatisation's main problem is also that of Chaucer's poem. Any collection which leaps between tales of courtly love, morally improving homilies and chunks of unashamed bawdy is going to be wildly erratic in pace as well as tone, and will inevitably contain longueurs. These are probably more palpable when seeing both parts of the adaptation on the same day, a total of nearly six hours' playing time. Once or twice there comes a quarter-hour or so during which one needs to be committed to the Chaucer experience in order to remain focused until the life bursts out again. And it never shakes off the feeling of being a dramatised work of literature rather than a theatre piece in itself: it is a skilful and gamesome translation across artistic media, but not a natural inhabitant of its new station.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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