Monday, March 29, 2010

The Canterbury Tales

Written by Geoffrey Chaucer
Adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Conrad Nelson
Northern Broadsides
Liverpool Playhouse (23rd-27th March 2010)

The Canterbury Tales is perhaps the perfect text for Northern Broadsides to take on; its ribald humour and vivacity seems to chime with their approach far better than their recent Medea. However, this adapted version goes for far too many easy laughs, and so it sometimes seems like Carry On Pilgriming.

The Tales are amongst the most influential works in the history of English literature, and despite their fusty reputation - a result of many bad classroom experiences - they are a lively and very human account of late fourteenth century society. The classic feudal hierarchy was becoming slightly more fluid, and this brought disputes within the Catholic Church. The Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt were very recent memories, and the old certainties of a seemingly static society were being chipped away.

Against this background, Chaucer's original depicts a large and varied group of people from all social classes, on a long pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They pass the time by holding a storytelling competition, and almost every character has a go. The tales they tell reflect the person's station in life: the 'nobles' tell 'noble' tales (or maybe not, that's for the individual to judge), and the lowborn tell lowbrow ones.

Unfortunately, Mike Poulton's script relentlessly focuses on the more blue side of things, to the point of excluding all other colours. It is certainly shocking - and funny, the first time - to hear Middle English peppered with naked or barely concealed sexual references. But three hours in…well, it's more than a little tiresome.

Because of this, much of what made Chaucer's Tales so groundbreaking is lost. It is less a celebration of "sondry folk", and more a revel in their supposed baseness. It is less an expose of religious hypocrisy, and more a black-and-white portrayal of purity versus licentiousness.

Lis Evans' set design is extremely clever, allowing all props to be put to many different uses. This is perfectly executed, thanks to Conrad Nelson's direction and a lot of hard work from the performers. And as always with Northern Broadsides, the musicianship is excellent. But important though it is, there's more to life than sex, and there's also far more to The Canterbury Tales.

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