This play, excellently adapted by Mike Poulton, who was recently behind Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at the RSC, is being performed by Oxford Theatre Guild at Oxford Castle this week.
For Chaucer, the venue is a good one. One can almost smell the medieval world in these surroundings. Cleverly, the actors' performance takes place on the steps in front of castle mound, and the drinkers at The Tabard Inn, Southwark circa 1390, are us. Friendly steward staff steer us round the venue and explain that the audience will have to follow the band of pilgrims around the set, though worry not, that doesn’t mean de rigueur participation.
The play starts out with OTG regular Nick Quarterly (as Chaucer) with a babbling monologue. My heart sinks, this is not going to require a doctorate in Middle English is it? Phew! It’s just a device to show us what adaptations are there for. For without translation, many of us would not have a hope of deciphering these tales.
Six of the tales are represented here, starting with 'The Knight’s Tale'. The Knight narrates in verse while this vignette of love, jealousy and redemption unfolds.
Coming next, 'The Miller’s Tale' of deception and cuckoldry gives us a taste of medieval humour involving hot pokers and sore bottoms, and makes the 2014 audience titter like its 1387. Set just a few steps away in ‘Oseneye’ (Osney), the rendering of this classic tale has a wonderfully local relevance.
The stories flow well into each other, with swift and efficient scene changes. The only less than professional aspect of the performance being slightly cheap-looking props and backdrops. However, the surroundings of the mound and prison are so well used this doesn’t garner our attention as much as it would in the ‘real world’ of theatrics.
'The Reeve’s Tale' of duplicity and the sexual exploits around a family of millers is positively ‘Carry On Canterbury’. The actors adapt admirably to the different character roles required by each Tale, however, like Sid James’ leading ladies, the same blonde stays the in the limelight whether playing Emilee in ‘The Knight’s Tale’, Alison in ‘The Miller’ or Pertelote in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s tale (played by Laura O’ Mahony)
By the second half, for ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ they obviously run out of female cast as some of the male cast are used for the ladies and fairies. If the intention was to be camp or comic, neither really apply here. Chaucer’s intention was to explore the balance of power in relationships between men and women, and how much physical desire blinds men into giving too much away, not (unless I’m mistaken) swapping gender roles. Still, the knight and old crone are well played by James Silk and Laura Davies, with some of the most complex and interesting dialogue in the piece given by these two.
The last set, The Pardoner’s Tale and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale are two of the best stories, and showcase the versatility of actor Drew McDonald. In the former, his portrayal of a young hoodlum rioter was particularly authentic. I hope that this is not a case of method acting, given his day job as a secondary school Maths teacher!
Lastly, as night falls on the castle mound complex, the lights go on for the surrealist part of the drama. The female cast were excellent as anthropomorphised backing singers to McDonald’s Chauntecleer. I don’t know if Chaucer would have approved, but it certainly looks like the audience is enjoying this modern and engaging adaptation of his work.