This review is from 2021. ‘The Wife of Willesden’ returns for 2022.
Zadie Smith’s debut play is bookended by two absolutely sublime sequences in which actor Crystal Condie plays a character coyly billed as ‘author’.
That is to say, it’s Zadie Smith, instantly recognisable in a jumpsuit and headwrap, posh and neurotic as she sits in a corner of Robert Jones’s magnificent immersive pub set clutching her MacBook. She profusely apologies for the play we’re about to see, and for any bits of her novels that might have offended anyone. She also introduces us to the good people of her beloved Brent, of whom she tartly observes: ‘if there is a person in Brent who doesn’t think their life should be turned into a 400-page story, I’d like to meet them’. It is an absolute baller move of Smith’s: the audacity of writing a pisstake version of herself into what she’s already said will probably be her only play is absolutely glorious. It is perhaps inevitable that this couldn’t be the entire play. But I can’t overstate how much I loved these bits.
‘The Wife of Willesden’ proper is in fact an extremely modernised but surprisingly faithful reworking of Chaucer’s 600-ish years old ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’. It’s set in Willesden, which is part of Brent, but you don’t need a degree in North Londonology to suss out that the setting is a lively, diverse London community. But a basic grasp of Chaucer’s Middle English yarn is definitely a bonus here, even if it’s only to read the Wikipedia page.
It’s dazzling to behold Smith’s intelligence at work
The titular Willesdenite is Alvita, played by the always excellent Clare Perkins. Five times married and entirely lacking in regrets, she’s taken the spotlight at a boozy late-night storytelling contest to share a tale. But first, a little something about her. Or in fact, an awful lot about her. The Wife of Bath’s prologue is vastly longer than the story itself, and so it proves here, as Perkins’s Alvita offers a rambling, digressive, raucous and often hilarious verse account of her various suitors and her philosophy in life. Which is to prioritise pleasure: where Chaucer’s wife defended her multiple marriages in terms of the limited options available for women to exercise power in society, Alvita is more about defending her right to marry whoever she wants and not be judged for it. But Smith is extremely smart in finding overlap, as Alvita uses the exact same arguments about remarried Old Testament patriarchs that Chaucer’s wife deployed in order to silence her annoying Nigerian preacher and pious aunt.
At heart it does feel a bit like a literature project. It’s dazzling to behold Smith’s intelligence at work in the way she’s transposed the tale. But the structure isn’t that dramatically thrilling, with the tale – when it comes – so heavily restating of Alvita’s earlier themes as to feel a bit superfluous. It very much relies on Indhu Rubasingham’s kinetic staging to hold our attention. And there’s a huge amount resting on Perkins. She effortlessly holds the stage and has brassy charisma to spare. But for a show so concerned with sex, it’s oddly unsensual, and in its way her performance feels like she’s telling us how she sees the world rather than showing us.
You could make a case for ‘The Wife of Willesden’ as the world’s coolest Middle English lecture: even if you don’t feel like you’ve learned about Chaucer, you will have done. As a play it’s constrained by the perimeters Smith has set herself. But it’s a right laugh, and at the risk of stating the obvious, if you’re a Zadie Smith fan, what are you waiting for?