Chaucer gets an update in ‘Wife of Willesden’

As a young teenager, Clare Perkins studied Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath” in school. A few decades later, Perkins landed the lead in a contemporary interpretation of “The Wife of Bath.” What Perkins remembered most about her secondary school studies of the 600-year-old character: “She’s rude.”

“She’s loud, she’s rude,” Perkins told the Herald with a big laugh, “(I knew) this was going to be really good fun.”

Zadie Smith’s reimagining of the Canterbury tale, “The Wife of Willesden,” became a smash hit in 2021 at the Kiln Theatre, which is situated in the Northwest London neighborhood where Smith sets the action. Smith has modernized the tale while keeping the lead character closely connected to Chaucer’s original text — “The Wife of Willesden” makes its stateside debut at the American Repertory Theater Feb. 25 to March 19.

The original Wife of Bath was (and is) revolutionary. A woman who married five times, she spoke openly about sex and the church’s narrow minded view of it during the middle ages. In “The Wife of Willesden,” Perkins’ character Alvita carries a similar progressive and bawdy energy into our age.

“The Wife of Bath is unrepentantly out there talking about sex and about how women should be equal, if not a little more equal than men,” Perkins said with a laugh. “So it’s great to play (a new version) of her. It’s great to be able to say the things she says on stage.”

“And, as (director) Indhu (Rubasingham), says, Alvita’s an unreliable narrator,” Perkins added. “And they’re always the most fun to play because she’ll tell you something, then contradicts herself, and you wonder if she’s lying.”

Like in Chaucer’s original work, the setting is a pub. And, as anyone who has spent any amount of time in a pub, club or bar will tell you, there’s always an outrageous character one too many drinks in telling an outrageous story that you don’t mind overhearing.

“I think of one of those people you overhear and say, ‘That woman is really interesting,’ then you hear her again, and you’re like, ‘That woman is really loud,’” Perkins said. “You know that kind of person that you’re loving to hate, that person that’s good entertainment?”

That person is Alvita. Only she’s speaking truth in couplets as often as she’s being bawdy.

The role is, as Perkins said, good fun. But it’s also a tremendous amount of work. Alvita has a lot to say about everything, including all five husbands, so that makes the show nearly one long monologue.

“It was one of the jobs where you go, ‘This job is mine, I have to get this job,’ and then as soon as they offer you the job, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, can I do this?’” Perkins said. “But I’ve got a good working relationship with Indhu and the Kiln Theatre and so I knew I’d be safe.”

She may feel safe, but Alvita may make you nervous, or uncomfortable, or giggle uncontrollably, or question your place in the world. Just as Perkins remembered, she’s rude. But she’s also so much more.

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