Pilgrimage round the country

Heather Neill looks forward to a touring production of the Canterbury Tales, where energy and rap give the stories new zest and fun

Canterbury Tales

Royal Shakespeare Company touring widely until June 10


Writer Mike Poulton (with the help of director Greg Doran and his assistants Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby), has managed to be true to Chaucer's poetry, irony and wit while making his work readily accessible.

Poulton's lines follow the original pretty closely, including the occasional Middle English word - swink (work), wood (mad), for instance - whose meaning is clear in context. Two plays divided into 21 linked sections give each tale its due. The Cook's Tale is abandoned (as it is by Chaucer) and the Monk's tedious chronicle cleverly avoided as the pilgrims are bored to sleep during the interval.

Chaucer's own contribution, The Tale of Sir Thopas, is here turned into a vigorous rap, which is great fun, but rather undermines the irony of Chaucer's own inventions complaining about his abilities as a poet. Poulton has great affection for Chaucer: "He's constantly sending himself up. There is always a joke in the making. Yet he was also deeply serious - a major diplomat who went all over Europe on missions for the Crown. He was such a close observer of people's characters."

And they leap into life onstage on the famous journey to Thomas ...

Becket's tomb in Canterbury. Chaucer's bawdiness is well known, but Poulton is at pains to emphasise other qualities too: "It is amazing, when the tales are in context, how balanced the work is, and (the Tales) comment on each other".

The famously rude Miller's Tale, for instance (it's the one which features a bottom hanging out of a window only to be mistakenly kissed by a rejected would-be lover), makes fun of a cuckolded carpenter. This is immediately followed by the Reeve, a carpenter by trade, telling a farcical story about a cuckolded miller. Besides, the bawdy Miller's Tale contrasts with the courtly, heroic Knight's Tale in which two noble friends compete to the death for the love of beauteous Emilee.

Discussion of the role of women occurs in the interplay between characters and tales: The Man of Law's story of the virtue and patience of women is followed by The Shipman's about a greedy, wily wife. Poulton says it's surprising how strongly the female characters come through: "There is plenty for the Wife of Bath to smile about". And, of course, she towers over the proceedings, both when telling her own tale of what it is women truly desire - control over their husbands - and between stories as well.

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