Zadie Smith’s The Wife of Willesden, is a Raunchy Homage to Community and the Canterbury Tales ★★★★

By Anna Berkowitz

To be completely transparent, I went to this production for my contemporary literature class with zero expectations and no idea what it was about. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this modern take on a Chaucer tale, complete with an unforgettable fifteen seconds when I watched three middle-aged men dance to Cardi B’s “WAP” while sitting next to two of my professors.

Zadie Smith has created a love letter to the local area of Kilburn and Willesden in an updated version of one of the most famous Canterbury tales, The Wife of Bath. Essentially, the play is an hour and forty five minute monologue from the protagonist, Alvita, played brilliantly by Clare Perkins, whose stage presence is simply captivating. In contrast to the supporting cast who are constantly moving around the stage and changing costumes, Alvita stays center stage in a distinctive red dress. Combined with Perkins’ sharp comedic timing and booming voice, she does an excellent job in keeping the attention of the audience despite the long run time. Her monologue is mainly about the power of her body and her experiences with the five different men she has married over the course of her life. Set in a real, local pub that is just down the road from the Kiln Theatre, the dialogue is raunchy, hilarious and spirited. The absence of an interval helps the play maintain its pace as Alvita muses on sex, femininity, and the patriarchy.

The supporting cast of ten switch between a series of colourful characters, including, but not limited to, St Paul, Alvita’s devout aunt, Zadie Smith herself, and Jesus. They play the dual role of representing the community of Kilburn as Alvita’s pub audience, and the supporting players in the tale she spins. 

Even without a complete understanding of Chaucer, it’s difficult to ignore the care that Smith has taken to mimic the verse style and the tangential style of storytelling. Every scene was equal parts captivating and comedic, illustrating the power of Smith’s writing and her ability to fully develop her main character. Throughout the play we get a full picture of a striking, but by no means perfect, woman who has lived a life with few regrets. Combined with a not-so-subtle declaration that women should be able to talk about sexuality in an explicit way that is more commonly associated with men, Zadie Smith delivers a thoroughly entertaining and community-oriented feminist take on this classic tale.

Hi, I’m Anna Berkowitz. I’m from Berkeley, California, and I’m a General Course student, in my third year, studying International Relations and Literature. In the limited time that I have outside of the wonderful world of academia, I enjoy running, reading, playing flute, and spending all my money on cinema tickets and books. I love writing about new films, and tv, especially anything in the science fiction or fantasy genre. If you’d like to get in touch about anything at all, my email is a.e.berkowitz@lse.ac.uk, and my Instagram is @anna.berkowiz

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