THE DECAMERON
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 23 July, 1996

There is a certain conventional style to stage adaptations of collections of stories such as The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron: actors slip fluidly between characters, a bare minimum of time is expended upon establishing the situation in which folk find themselves whiling away the time by tale-telling, and set design is necessarily non-specific and versatile. Nick Ward's production of his own adaptation from Boccaccio the last in the Gate's "New Playwrights, Ancient Sources" season observes all these conventions, but does so with a relaxed flair which lifts The Decameron head and shoulders above most other shows in this vein.

The audience take their seats (or rather benches) in a mist-filled theatre, walking across and occasionally stumbling into the shallow pit which runs the length of the space, partially covered with planking in Conor Murphy's superior design. In half-light at one end, a solo Kyrie is sung; the murky atmosphere is maintained just long enough to suggest the plague-ridden city from which the ten characters remove themselves (by dint of a simple lighting change occurring in mid-speech) before they get down to the business of tale-telling.

At this point the design comes into its own. The pit is used to secrete live bodies or dump dead ones; planks are upended to serve as walls and doors; a shower falls toward one end of the theatre, beyond which a spot of cookery is conducted the dish, naturally, is the heart of an adulterous wife's lover. The stories of love and betrayal, discovery and concealment unfold at first serially, then little by little grow more tangled, nested in one another and intercut, until any sense of time vanishes and the arguments of individual narrators become wholly subsumed; the act of telling, and of watching tales develop, is all. Boccaccio was recognised by Chaucer as the source of his Troilus And Criseyde; individual segments in Ward's selection include the origins of works as diverse as Keats' Isabella; or, The Pot Of Basil and one of Nina Fitzpatrick's modern Fables Of The Irish Intelligentsia.

Ward's direction is likewise oriented entirely toward bringing stories alive at a particular moment in a particular area of the stage; it is concentrated and tightly focused, and his cast of six women and four men drawn from all corners of the British Isles, France and Morocco respond excellently to it. The production is a complete ensemble piece, to the extent that individual performers can hardly be identified; the programme lists them solely by the names of their "principal" characters, those on retreat from the infested city, who are of only tangential importance to the tales themselves. What with Conor McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower at the Bush and Ward's admirable production here, the fine art of storytelling is enjoying a small but beautifully crafted renaissance on the London fringe.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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