I think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.
The Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.
For me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!
I was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.
Despite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.
Many of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.
So, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?