Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The Guildford Shakespeare Company are offering a rare entertainment in the ancient church of St. Mary’s in Quarry Street, Guildford, with “The Canterbury Tales”. The tower of this ancient church probably stood on its present spot when real Canterbury Pilgrims passed through Guildford at the end of the 14th Century. This month its nave has become an elegant theatre in the round.
The innovative GSC have rewritten seven of Chaucer’s tales for a 21st century audience. Sexual rivalry, bawdy ribaldry, vanity, greed, chivalry, the cruelty of the gods, flatulence, slapstick, Renaissance poetry, a moving interlude of flute and violin music and a hearty self-help therapy session ... quite a lot to pack into one evening. Add over-life-sized puppets and a certain amount of cross-dressing by both genders and you have the gist of the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s new production.
The Knight’s Tale, told in elegant Dryden-inspired lines by Philip Benjamin, was followed by the contrasting Nun’s Priest’s Tale, ventriloquised by a sprightly Matthew Pinches with an Emu-like duck puppet. The audience thoroughly enjoyed their own part in the action, providing loud farmyard noises while the slavering Fox, (Ben Tolley puppeteering as the head, with a wonderful undulating tail played by Lauren Silver) chased vain Chanticleer around the stage, harassed the front row and was in turn tricked by the wily bird. Just as Chaucer’s Southwark innkeeper devised the idea of the tales as a story-telling contest, audiences are asked to vote for their favourite story at the end of each evening. This tale was voted best on the preview night.
The honour could as well have gone to the Wife of Bath, Bea Holland, whose incarnation as a sexy middle-aged pop psychologist with an “interesting” past was a stroke of comic genius that won a lot of laughs and votes from the audience. Her survey of “What a woman most desires” conducted among the audience during the interval, sparked plenty of ideas and discussion! She also produced great comedy as a comically drunken thug in the creepy Pardoner’s tale told by Matthew Pinches in hypocritical mode and a greasy flaxen wig.
The bawdy Miller’s Tale, narrated by diminutive, definitely female and feisty Lauren Silver in red beard and over-stuffed apron, and the scatological tale by the Summoner were played out lustily. The Tale of the Prioress in musical mime was the least accessible to anyone who was not familiar with Chaucer’s original story, but the music was very beautiful.
Fast, fun and essentially true to the spirit of the originals, this is a series of vignettes to enjoy more than once for their wit and spontaneity, and an enlightening introduction to the content of Chaucer’s 14th Century stories.
More information and tickets at Guildford Shakespeare Company