The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, was adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton and directed by Jan Rae. It was performed in the gardens of Bell House, from 9th to 17th July 2022.
The Wife of Bath - Rathna Ali
The Prioress, Old Woman - Marcia Bennie
Chaucer, Nicholas - Hugh Blake-James
Alison, Crone - Hayley Blundell
Jarvis, Rioter - Steve Borrie
Carpenter, Rioter - Tracy Brook
Squire, Emilee - Michelle Cathcart
Arcite, Pertelote - Chloe Couper
Theseus, Col Fox - Andrew Cunningham
The Miller, Queen - Gill Daly
The Nun’s Priest, Palamon - George Dennis
The Pardoner - Judy Douglas
The Man of Law - Lynda Hansom
Hippolyta, Young Knight - Clarisse Hassan
Absolon, Chauntecleer - Mark Kelleher
The Knight, Rioter - Roger Orr
The Host - Katrina Rublowsky
The Monk, Apothecary - Mike Stirling
All other parts played by members of the company.
Guitar - Andrew Cunningham
Keyboard - Paul Grimwood
Guitar - Roger Orr
Violin - Simon Wood
Director - Jan Rae
Musical Director - Paul Grimwood
Choreographer - Gill Daly
Fight Director - Steve Borrie
Additional Music - Andrew Cunningham
Additional Lyrics - Gill Daly
Stage Manager - Elizabeth Holden
Assistant Stage Managers - Maddy Jones, Emily Lamm
Costumes - Judy Douglas
Hair and Make-up - Denise Biffin
Production Manager - Emily Lamm
Poster Design - Clarisse Hassan
Box Office - Paul Sykes
Front of House - Jane Alexander
Assisted by - Members of the society, Bell House volunteers
by Kate Boydell
Summer: for those of us who are kids, have kids, or were once kids, ’tis the season of long, insufferable road journeys to sites of historic interest for the purposes of moral improvement, complete with valiant games to pass the time and the ensuing arguments about whose turn it is.
Chaucer knew a thing or two about that.
His Canterbury Tales gather together a diverse bunch of pilgrims on the medieval equivalent of a package coach holiday. Ranging from caricature to finely-drawn character, the travellers agree to take turns telling stories—an idea that becomes the narrative framing for a series of playlets spontaneously acted out by the pilgrims themselves. Though written as a story collection, the work transfers naturally to the stage (and even more naturally to the garden) in Mike Poulton’s 2005 adaptation for the RSC, from which the Dulwich Players presented five tales over two weekends last month. Getting to the first performance must have felt like something of a pilgrimage for director Jan Rae and her team, as this production fell victim to serial pandemic postponement. But much like the tales themselves, after a few false starts and a little recasting it sprang gloriously to life in the bucolic Bell House gardens.
Chaucer’s company set off in April. Our poor pilgrims sweated through two of the hottest July weekends on record. While the audience may have been wilting, the playful energy and lusty performances were completely undampened, even under layers of impressively accurate costuming created by Judy Douglas. For me, someone who studied the Tales for years, it was as if those familiar woodcut figures, with their ‘pynched wimples’ and ‘hoodes of greene’, had leapt from the illustrated manuscript and come to singing, dancing, bickering, frolicking life. Marcia Bennie beautifully channelled the posh and prudish Prioress with disapproving little flicks of her chin and flurries of compulsive dog-petting. Rathna Ali resisted overly hamming the Wife of Bath and instead brought a good-natured languor to her flirting that kept the character firmly on the likeable side. Gill Daly dug deep to produce an impressively believable drunken Miller. Newish Player George Dennis was a superb nun’s priest, equal parts heartfelt and henpecked, delivering his characterisation consistently every minute he was on stage except for when he was playing puffed-up Palamon, the star-crossed lover from the Knight’s tale, with equal effect. This dual casting made a virtue of practicality, as many of the pilgrims took on contrasting characters in others’ tales, showcasing the actors’ range and highlighting Chaucer’s themes of duality: highbrow and lowbrow, religiosity and hypocrisy, nature and culture, the sacred and the profane.
This, the sublime mix of sacred and profane, is at the heart of the work and it was fully captured by the five chosen tales: the bawdiest (Miller’s) balanced the courtliest (Knight’s); the human morality tale (Pardoner’s) contrasted with the talking-animal fable (Nun’s priest). Each of these mini play-within-plays was presented crowd-pleasingly true to form. The chivalrous Knight’s tale, of fair damsels and the stupid things men do for them, had a tongue-in-cheek formality epitomised by love rivals Palamon and Arcite (played by Chloe Couper with an effective, almost pantomime, earnestness). The Miller’s tale, of much lowlier love rivals, wrung every drop of pure farce from the text with the help of scatological sound effects and props, much to the delight of my kids and the actors themselves, who were obviously having a whale of a time. Who knew you could have so much fun with a plastic bum? (Actually, don’t answer that.)
The Pardoner’s tale brought us more convincingly rowdy drunks in the form of Steve Borrie, Tracy Brook and Roger Orr, who seek to cheat death and each other but get their comeuppance. The Nun’s Priest’s fable of the proud cockerel, his favourite hen and the wily fox was the stand-out of the set. It was anchored by stellar comedic performances by the three main animals: Chloe Couper’s French hen, Andrew Cunningham’s mafioso Fox and especially Mark Kelleher’s hilarious Chanticleer, with his spot-on Catalan accent, perfect comic timing and inspired improv flourishes. The rest of the hen harem made very effective showgirl-chickens, clucking, strutting and singing to multi-talented Andrew Cunningham’s song arrangement. This tale was utterly joyful to watch.
Last came the Wife of Bath’s tale. Beautifully told and performed, this tale embodied the balance of the whole, with its blend of courtliness and humour, magic and deep human insight that still resonates today. Who can argue that “what women want most in all the world”, which remains out of reach in much of the world, is the simple freedom to choose their own path? Magically granted the ability to have it all — beauty AND virtue — the transformed Crone of the Wife’s tale delivered something we could all use more of: an unexpected happy ending.
Diverse as these tales were, three golden threads ran through the production. The first was comedy gold, liberally mined: Mark’s outrageous cockerel, Gill’s slurring Miller, Host Katrina Rublowsy’s witty asides, Hayley Blundell’s side-splitting ‘crone moan’, Mike Stirling’s perpetually befuddled Monk…there was a huge range of humour on display. The second thread was song: as well as the songs Chaucer penned, the entire cast performed a sort of Greek chorus effect, giving playful voice to the themes and connections through clever, funny original lyrics written by Gill Daly and set to Paul Grimwood’s music.
The third thread was Chaucer himself, or just “Geoff”, as he insists. The Chaucer of the Tales is multi-layered persona: omniscient author, flawed narrator, pilgrim character and, in this production, impromptu actor (playing lusty Nicholas in the Miller’s tale.) Hugh Blake-James captured every layer and—to my delight—the interplay between them, physically advancing and retreating on the stage to mirror Chaucer’s fluctuating narrative presence on the page. Together with Katrina’s host, Hugh provided the necessary dramatic scaffold but more than this, he gave us an affecting and plausible glimpse of Chaucer the man: artist and merchant, playful and thoughtful, the virtuoso who toys with self-effacement. A man we could imagine holding court in a Southwark pub in any age. Were the father of English literature alive today, I think he would have absolutely loved Hugh’s interpretation and indeed, this whole production. I certainly did.