THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN
April 9, 2023
The audience enters the BAM Harvey theater to a British pub scene happening
on stage (designed by Robert Jones) and peopled by ten ethnically diverse, colorful
characters played by members of the Kiln Theatre in The Wife of Willesden.
Folks mingle about telling personal stories, as a narrator/ “author” (Jessica
Murrain) enters, connecting these present-day “pilgrims” to Chaucer’s age old The Wife of Bath from Chaucer's age old The Canterbury Tales.
Zadie Smith’s modernized, adapted script addresses the endangered feminist
values of today and mimics Chaucer’s bawdy, highly sexualized wife, raising the
question, “What do women really desire?”The wife, Alvita, exceptionally
performed by Clare Perkins, tells her life story of five husbands, expressing her
sexual vitality and need to be “in control of her men.”
The five husbands appear
and disappear, acting out misogynistic behaviors. Judgments erupt from the pub as well in the form of the religious right: a preacher, Alvita’s “auntie,”
“Jesus,” and Greek gods and goddesses. Still, she relentlessly recovers from
disappointment and mistreatment from each encounter, to remain dominant.
Many audience members stood up and cheered each time Alvita’s sexual needs
Following Chaucer’s form, Smith then takes us to a story within the story: to
Jamaica, (lush green grassy set design by Robert Jones, spectacular lighting by
Guy Hoare), where a young Maroon (Troy Glasgow), rapes a young woman and
is taken to court. Judged by Queen Nanny (Jessica Murrian), she grants him life if
he can return in a year to answer the question “What do women most desire?”
His pilgrimage leads to many dead ends and male confusion until he meets an
old hag ((Ellen Thomas) who bargains with him to save his life if he promises to
marry her. In the end, desperate, he agrees. After Queen Nanny grants him life,
he is anguished to hold true to his promise, surrendering to the ugly hag; but
once committed, he is surprised to find she has turned into a beautiful and loving
Smith’s script and Indhu Rubasingham’s somewhat frantic stage direction
succeed in connecting age old issues to the present, but do not really leave us
with a satisfying resolution or dramatic ending. Instead, the “narrator” offers the
audience an apology if we are disappointed. It’s as if Smith is admitting she
couldn’t wrap it up more provocatively or, sadly perhaps, she realizes the past
continues to repeat itself.
The evening ends with all dancing on stage, (music
and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham; movement direction: Imogen Knight) as if it’s all been one big pub party.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Mary Seidman