The Wife of Willesden Resource Guide

MAR 7, 2023

A compilation of resources for educators and learners from all contexts to explore the world of twenty-first-century Willesden that Zadie Smith portrays.

Troy Glasgow in a denim jacket and Clare Perkins in a red dress embrace each other in a close dance.

British writer Zadie Smith’s play The Wife of Willesden is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century tale “The Wife of Bath” from The Canterbury Tales, transported to contemporary London, in the borough of Brent.

This Resource Guide can aid educators and learners from all contexts to explore the world of The Wife of Willesden. Topics in this guide include storytelling, adaptation, marriage, sexuality, love and relationships, language and slang, and men and women’s power in society. Resources are accompanied by brief summaries and suggested discussion questions for further exploration.

This production includes strobe lighting, flashing lights, haze, slurs against women, sexually suggestive scenes, and representations of sexual and physical violence.

Preparing to See Live Theater

Learning about the production process, analyzing context to better understand the artists’ choices, and identifying themes are all valuable ways of preparing for the experience of engaging with live theater. In addition, here are a few elements to keep in mind.

Seeing live theater is a community experience in real time, and being mindful of others is important. Remember that you can be seen and heard just as well as the performers. Keeping your attention focused on the performance will add to the overall experience for everyone. Feeling and expressing emotions is part of the power and magic of theater. We hope you’ll help everyone enjoy the experience by expressing your enjoyment through focus. We want you to think of your experience here as one of many. The theater is a place for you.

There are a few things you can do to help yourself and those around you enjoy the performance:

  • Save conversations for intermission and after the show.
  • Turn your cell phone off or place it in Airplane mode.
  • Familiarize yourself with the surroundings (exits, bathrooms) and the resources (this packet, programs, lobby materials) so you can feel ready to engage fully with the experience.
  • Try to take care of your restroom needs before the show.
  • It doesn’t end with the curtain call! Theaters create performances for audiences to enjoy, be inspired by, and reflect upon. Everyone plays a part in building this community and these relationships are vital. Talk with your friends and family about what you’ve experienced. Spread the word!

About the Production

A proper local legend, Alvita will tell her life story to anyone in the local West London pub. The question is: are you ready to hear it? Because this woman’s got the gift of the gab: she can rewrite mistakes into triumphs, turn pain into parables. And her love life? It’s an epic poem. They call her the Wife of Willesden.

Check out the resources links below for an orientation to the play and its creative team.


The Wife of Willesden in One Word

The original cast describe the show in one word.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you observe about the design of this show? What visuals stick out to you the most?
  • Based on the information you read from designers on the show, what kind of environment are they trying to create? How would you create a similar environment in a different kind of location (ie. a school rather than a bar)?
  • The seating arrangement for The Wife of Willesden includes onstage seats for audience members. Why do you think this specific design choice was made? Did having audience members onstage impact your perception of the show?
  • How is telling a story in a large group different from a small group? Online vs. in person? A group of friends vs. a group of strangers?
  • How did the language used by characters shift in different “settings”? Did you notice any connections between The Canterbury Tales and The Wife of Willesden?
  • Who are some captivating storytellers? What qualities do they have? What content do they tell? How do they affect/change their audiences?

Playwright Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an award-winning British author, known for her novels, essays and short stories. The Wife of Willesden is her first play. Her hometown of Brent was selected as the 2020 London Borough of Culture, and she was commissioned to write a literary celebration of her childhood borough. Smith often explores themes of race, class, and cultural identity in her work. She frequently employs unconventional characters and sharp dialogue. Read more about and from Zadie Smith with the resources below.



Discussion Questions

  • What are the similarities and differences between writing a play versus a novel?
  • What is the responsibility, if any, for a writer adapting a “classic” to be true to the original?
  • How would you describe Zadie Smith in 5 words?

Adaptation: Based on Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath”

Chaucer could not have imagined the manner in which we have re-embodied his lines.

Zadie Smith

The Wife of Willesden is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century tale “The Wife of Bath” from The Canterbury Tales, transported to contemporary London.

About Alisoun, the Wife of Bath

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a story within The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. The Canterbury Tales itself follows a group of fourteenth century pilgrims and the stories they tell to pass the time. Alisoun is a character in The Canterbury Tales—she is a clothmaker and business woman who has been married multiple times. The story she shares is set hundreds of years before her own time, in the Arthurian era. Check out the resources below to dive deeper into Chaucer’s source.


Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe Alisoun in your own words?
  • Can you relate to Alisoun, even though she was written centuries ago?
  • Why do you think Zadie Smith picked this story to adapt?
  • What do you expect Alvita to be like based on knowledge of the Wife of Bath? What is she like in the production?
  • Marion Turner writes, “Female characters in medieval literature were more usually princesses or virginal damsels; nuns or saints; witches or prostitutes. But the Wife of Bath was different—she was a middle-class, middle-aged, sexually active woman.” What similarities do you see between Alisoun and Alvita?
  • The framing device for The Canterbury Tales is a pilgrimage, a journey that brings many different kinds of people together. What are some modern day events/scenarios that could serve as a similar framing device?

About Alvita, the Wife of Willesden

Zadie Smith sets her play The Wife of Willesden in the twenty-first century, multicultural, North West London borough of Brent. The Wife of Willesden follows Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s, as she tells her life story to a band of strangers in a small pub on the Kilburn High Road. Alvita recalls her five marriages in outrageous, bawdy detail, rewrites her mistakes as triumphs, and shares her beliefs on femininity, sexuality, and misogyny with anyone willing to listen.


Summary of The Wife of Willesden: From the Kiln Theatre’s resource guide, this in-depth summary includes quotes from the show. It describes Alvita’s five marriages, as well as her views on sex, relationship, and religion.

Context and Themes: This article discusses social and political context for both “The Wife of Bath” and The Wife of Willesden, as well as narrative techniques.

Activities for the Drama Studio and the English Classroom: These exercises include warm-ups, improvisation, writing, and textual analysis.

Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe Alvita in your own words?
  • What preliminary themes or messages can you pick up from Alvita’s character?
  • The way that Alvita is able to control the crowd and steer the argument to suit her version is a key theme in The Wife of Willesden—have we been swept along and outwitted by the fast thinking, irrepressible ‘Wife’?
  • Is Alvita a reliable or an unreliable narrator? Do we believe her stories?
  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales uses a frame narrative method, also called “a story-within-a-story.” An introductory narrative sets the stage for a highly emphasized secondary narrative, or string of narratives. Both Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath” and Smith’s The Wife of Willesden use the story-within-a-story technique to tell the tale of an old woman who turns into a beautiful young maiden. Why do you think Chaucer and Smith included a story-within-a-story? What does it add?
  • If you were asked to extend the title of the show to “The Wife of Willesden: A Tale of ______ and ______”, what title would you give it?
  • How would you describe Alvita’s perspective on marriage, sex, and relationships?

Diversity in The Wife of Willesden

The diversity of North West London is reflected and represented in The Wife of Willesden. Smith also transports part of her tale to Jamaica, with a story within the story featuring the historical figure of Queen Nanny who led a rebel community of Maroons—men and women who had emancipated themselves from enslavement by British colonists.


  • Nanny of the Maroons: We learn of the historical figure Queen Nanny, who led a rebellion against the British colonialists and set up a rebel community of Maroons—men and women who had escaped enslavement. This resource, from the Royal Museums Greenwich in London, gives background on Queen Nanny.
  • The Wife of Willesden and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath: Marion Turner writes about how “one of the great messages of the poem is that we should listen to diverse voices, not only the perspectives of those who are in power.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think telling the stories of people such as Queen Nanny is important? What makes Queen Nanny’s story relevant to the show but also to us as an audience?
  • What is so important about telling Alvita’s story? And why now?
  • What have you learned from Alvita? Were any of your initial thoughts or impressions reinforced or proven wrong after seeing the show?

Women, Power, and Relationships

The Wife of Willesden challenges our traditional views of how women should behave. Alvita argues for women’s right to follow their desires and pleasure without shame, and to have agency over their own lives.


  • Tell Her Tale: “It’s always shocking when women say what is usually said by men.” Anna Wilson, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard, discusses similarities and differences between Alisoun/Alvita. Whose story gets to be told? And in what way?
  • A Brief History of the Gender Parity Movement in Theatre: Even today, most produced playwrights continue to be men. There are many stereotypes of women found in theater, especially when the depictions of women have been written by men. How can we challenge these characterizations?

Discussion Questions

  • In what ways does this play challenge the stereotypes of women? In what ways does it reinforce those stereotypes?
    How far can we trust Alvita’s account of things?
  • To what extent does Zadie Smith want us to support Alvita’s actions and opinions?
  • When Alvita embraces the stereotypes of a “gold digger,” or a lying and deceitful wife, looking out for her own interests, what should we believe and to what extent are we meant to support her world view?
  • This play has a very binary view of gender and gender roles. Do you think this was deliberate? How did it impact your experience?
  • Does Alvita’s perspective seem outside a “mainstream” understanding of marriage, sex and love? What kind of societal influences help shape her and our attitude towards these things?
  • What are some examples of “he/she/they said” stories? What happens when you give voice to everyone involved in a situation where there is not one “right” version? What’s the theatrical potential of presenting stories such as these?

Accent Dialect, and Language

In The Wife of Willesden, Zadie Smith uses accents and dialects. Alvita often incorporates Jamaican patois into her speech, a nod to her roots. In the same way that language marked identity in Chaucer’s England, dialect helps mark Alvita’s identity in The Wife of Willesden.


Discussion Questions

  • If you were writing a play about your hometown, what slang would be included?
  • What preconceptions do you have about how people speak, the words they choose, and the way they say them?
  • How can we challenge our beliefs surrounding what someone should, or shouldn’t sound like?
  • Did you have difficulty understanding the dialogue of this play due to accent, dialect and/or language? If so, why might this be the case?

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