In her stage-writing debut, Zadie Smith brings to life a twenty-first century translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's classic The Wife of Bath. The Wife of Willesden follows Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s, as she tells her life story to a band of strangers in a small pub on the Kilburn High Road.
Alvita struts and laughs her way across these pages like she owns them ... The Wife of Willesden has arrived at an opportune time. These days, many teachers are reaching for diverse, modern texts, and debates about the value of works by Dead White Men have pushed old classics into a literary graveyard. The increasing difficulty of Chaucer’s Middle English is another mark against it ... Then here comes this feisty revision of the most memorable character in medieval literature from a beloved Jamaican-British writer.
It’s a work infused with Smith’s passion for literature. I don’t mind admitting I was afraid it might amount to no more than clever-clever pastiche. If you associate Chaucer with long, dull hours in a classroom, this show proves that a narrative that is centuries old can still speak to a modern public without the help of footnotes ... There’s only the very rare lapse in the writing: 'curating,' for instance, is not a word you can imagine really passing the wife’s lips.
With bawdy humour and an ear for gossip, it’s a love letter to her local area ... It’s good fun. The Wife of Bath was revolutionary, for in a world where a woman was defined by her marital status, here was one who had married five times, and who talked unashamedly about sex. In this slightly tipsy setting, Smith steps it up for a modern audience ... There is clever mimicry in the way Smith echoes Chaucer’s work, adapting his tale from Arthurian England to 18th-century Jamaica, but there are moments where the play gets lost in its own tangents. By sticking to a relatively faithful adaptation of Chaucer’s verse, there is too a certain sense of stagnancy ... Nevertheless, Smith is brilliant at sowing the seeds of characters, giving little snippets that build them fully and immediately.