Published to coincide with a short run at the Kiln Theatre, Zadie Smith’s first play is a fizzing, popping, crackling rewrite of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath that presents us with a character called Alvita, front and centre, a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and who has been married five, or is it six, times.
Written in a verse that mirrors and echoes Chaucer’s own despite being irresistibly modern (“I’m only hiding in the folds of his garment,” she tells us), Smith gets stuck into pretty much every nook and cranny of the modern experience, even finding time to perch an author in the corner of the pub where it’s all set to function as a chorus (admittedly, one among many).
“I had no idea it would be one of the most delightful writing experiences of my life,” Smith writes in the intro. Undoubtedly, Alvita’s voice (which Smith says is “one I’ve heard and loved all my life”) is full of life –
“I’m one of these Venus-born girls for real,
But I’ve also got this Mars side? I feel
Like Venus gave me lust and passion,
But Mars made me a woman of action.”
And Smith wrestles some profound truths to the ground, as you’d expect, particularly in the Tale itself (like The Wife of Bath, the book follows a Prologue, the Tale itself and then a Retraction) where three women reveal what it is they feel they want from life:
All things, we want freedom. Freedom to know
Our own desires. We want to follow
Them where they lead
We want to be free from
The bitter critique of men, banging on
And on about our apparent failings
We want to hear no more of men saying
We have no judgement or reason. We are
There is also (again, probably much as you’d expect), a beautiful musicality to the timbre of the rhyme:
“Back to this Maroon I was discussing
When he understood it was not nuffing
To find out what women them love the best
Him heart sunk low in him sorrowful chest.”
Any Cop?: Obviously, it would be best to see The Wife of Willesden – so if you get the chance do jump at the opportunity. But for those of us consigned to the provincial sticks, it’s not a bad second best at all.