In the Rehearsal Room

DEC 13, 2022

Adaptor Zadie Smith on the process of bringing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to life in contemporary London

Zadie Smith in a polka dot blouse and brown head-wrap talking while seated.

When I first began this attempt at Chaucerian translation, I thought I was writing a monologue. But almost immediately this proved impossible. At various moments in the original, Alyson speaks to the Pardoner, the Summoner, and the Friar, and once I’d let three extra people on to the stage, I couldn’t think of a good reason why there shouldn’t be more. For as well as talking to quite a few people, the Wife of Bath talks about many more. She is a voracious narrator: mimicking people, quoting them, animating them, bringing them to life and killing them off within a paragraph. So why not let St. Paul appear in the flesh, and all Alyson’s husbands and friends, and Christ himself! When typing on a laptop in a study facing a wall, the possibilities can appear endless. In the rehearsal room, things turned out to be a little more complicated.

Scenes it had amused me to write back-to-back—like a wedding following hard on a funeral, or a story of one marriage bookended by two others—became, for the director and our ten actors, a complicated choreography of music, emotion, quick changes, voice transformations, and, well, choreography. I have playwright friends who tell me nothing delights them more than forcing ten strangers to repeat words they have written. I have to say that was not my first reaction. It was more like: All these lovely people are here at 10:30 in the morning—and it’s my fault. Very soon, though, this sense of mortification passed, and something like vocational awe replaced it. I felt a great humility before the startling openness of actors, their playfulness and generosity and unselfconscious freedom—so different from writers! Their visual and physical imaginations. The creativity they seem to hold in their gestures, in their very beings. Rhyming word games are one thing; embodiment is quite another. And it’s been my delight to watch our directors, Indhu Rubasingham and Hannah Hauer-King, create a vivid theatrical reality out of my static sentences.

I suppose writers like me, who work a lot with dialogue, are always to some degree actor manqués, secretly convinced they could, if asked, “do all the voices” themselves. But the moment our extraordinary flesh-and-blood Alvita opened her mouth in the rehearsal room! Then that demented fantasy fell away. Not in my wildest dreams could I have heard, in my head, all the emotion, humor, intelligence and drama I’ve been privileged to see happen in front of me, every day, in the rehearsal room…

Clare Perkins speaking while the company watches

The layers of experience and sensation available in the theater should be the envy of all novelists. My first glimpse of the ingenious set demonstrated the difference. In one glance I could take in, entire, what it would have taken me three pages to describe. Not to mention sound effects, music, dancing, costumes! In the end, the rhyming verse becomes mere scaffolding, over which is laid all the three-dimensional richness of sound and movement, light and shade, the human voice, the human body. And yet: I also felt the miracle of text, in the rehearsal room. That 600-year-old jokes can still land is a humbling fact indeed.

Of course, Chaucer could not have imagined the manner in which we have re-embodied his lines (although the man who gave, to his Wife of Bath, the line “Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit / I took no kep, so that he liked me” may not be as far from as our contemporary sensibilities as we sometimes imagine.) I felt the presence, in the rehearsal room, of Chaucer’s humor and bawdiness, his philosophical depth and intellectual perversity. All transformed by the process of passing through these various flesh-and-blood actors, with their human voices and human gestures, with which they are able to perform the miracle of turning text into experience, words into action, ideas into something like “life.”

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time; as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia; three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free, and Intimations; and a short story collection, Grand Union.

Article originally published by Kiln Theatre.

Zadie Smith in rehearsal. Photo: Marc Brenner.
Clare Perkins and the company of The Wife of Willesden in rehearsal. Photo: Marc Brenner.

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