Telling Canterbury Tales. Compton House, Axbridge
With fart jokes, complex Medieval social satire, a multitude of characters, heavy drinking and lots of sex, putting Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century tales on stage is always going to have its challenges. And by and large the Taunton Thespians directed by Jane Edwards and Nicola Dawson pulled it off.
Staged on the lawn of Compton House in Axbridge under a threatening sky and a brisk wind the actors’ projected their voices well, were swift with their entries and exits and with their colourful Medieval costumes looked and sounded the part. To stage all of Chaucer’s tales would have been impossible and so the amdram troupe performed versions of just four, the best known one being The Wife of Bath’ Tale. The others being the Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
The evening opened with some fine period music from Gibby Swaine who could have done with more musicians as live music and singing always adds to a production. After an initial introduction from The Host played by Michael Gilbert it was time for Lindsey Cran to play her part at The Wife of Bath. Dressed mainly in red Cran swanked and sauced around the stage engaging with the audience and being a perfectly believable woman of the world and four times a widow. If she returned to this era you imagined her driving a red sports car, shopping in Harrods and appearing on TV’s Housewives of Camelot.
Her story featured the quest of the Knight (played by Peter Meredith) whose task was to find the answer to the question of ‘what do women really want’ in order to save his neck after a rape conviction in the court of King Arthur. This Knight looked as though he’d done rather too much entertaining and feasting rather than crusading but he used his body and voice to comic affect especially during a striptease demanded by Queen Guinevere. The female monarch who had a touch of the Linda Snell’s of The Archers about her, was brought to life by a stately and classy Lorna Evans who could have been in a slightly different play.
The violated damsel in the tale was played by Natasha Carter whose mass of hair and youthful good looks didn’t get in the way of her casting as the Chaucerian wench who seemed far too interested in sex for her own good adding to the tone of Jeremy Secker’s Up Pompeii! style 1970s script. Secker adapted the tales from Chaucer’s difficult to read Middle English into a sort of un-PC saucy 70s romp. Cran acknowledges in her programme notes that this version has “a touch of Carry On” about it. Gone is the Wife of Bath’s lengthy prologue surfeit to say a neat rhyming introduction, and out goes the pages of her story about the lusty knight who takes the maid anon’s maidenhead and in comes a more jaunty modern version which is much easier to follow although inevitably loses much of the original text. Well it is called Telling Canterbury Tales rather than The Canterbury Tales after all.
The Miller’s Tale with the love rivals Absalon (Ben Jordan) and John (Jack Ward) who battle to bed the Miller’s wife featured the famous buttock kissing scene and much trickery. It also featured Andy Busby as the suitably slow of wit Miller and an energetic performance from Dona Bullion as the maid. The Reeve’s Tale was again well acted with Jordan and Ward combining as the students bent on revenge after being ripped off by Symkyn the Miller (Peter Meredith) and his wife (Rebecca Beard). The final tale showcased avian inspired costumes as several members of the ensemble cast became hens in the fable of Chauntecleer (Andy Busby) and the fox (Des Pollard).
With about three hours of unremitting earthy humour the Canterbury Tales can wear a bit thin since there’s no overall narrative, but rather in this production it is reduced to four one act plays. The directors managed to bind them together using Chaucer’s own framing device of the stories told on the way to the Kent city and in general it worked. Stand out moments were the beauty contest put on for the Knight, the music of Swaine, the Knight’s striptease, the hen’s costumes and an excellent finish with the whole cast creating a chorus line to complete the show. Outdoor theatre is a challenge due to the acoustics – and this is where the actors excelled as they all had good projection and diction as they battled a brisk wind, distant traffic and the odd motorbike.
The play continues at a number of outdoor venues across Somerset. For details see http://www.tauntonthespians.org.uk/