She’s been married five times, picked up a thing or two about men and women and love and marriage, and doesn’t mind a drink or two, or more (but that leads to other things). And though about six centuries old, there are aspects of her story that feel as relevant as #MeToo.
Two years ago, prize-winning British author Zadie Smith, known for her novels and essays that explore the intersections of race, culture, sex, and class, brought a 15th-century English classic to the stage with her contemporary adaptation of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” “The Wife of Willesden,” which debuted at London’s Kiln Theatre, now makes its way to the States with a run at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) starting Thursday.
“The Wife of Willesden,” set in modern-day London, explores themes of the poem such as misogyny, sexuality, and violence against women. It follows the outspoken, bawdy narrator Alvita, who shares tales of her life in Jamaica before she immigrated to the London neighborhood, including her five marriages. Alvita, played by actress Clare Perkins, addresses not pilgrims, but pub-goers, who are as diverse as the real-life neighborhood.
“‘The Wife of Willesden’ is making a real comment about the stories that women tell and about the way that women are and are not believed — there’s a strong ‘Me Too’ movement influence on ‘The Wife of Willesden,’ which is partly picking up the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in order to show how little has changed in a bad way,” said Anna Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of English who studies medieval literature, including Chaucer.
Like this new interpretation, Chaucer himself embraced the spirit of innovation.
“When he was writing he was part of an experimental group,” Wilson said. “At the time, what he was doing is actually quite similar to some of the authors coming after him who have tried to break new ground in terms of poetic traditions and histories.”