‘The Canterbury Tales’ brings medieval England to modern-day Durham
Wandering into Trevelyan College’s James Knott Hall, I was expecting to take a quiet backseat to watch the performance. Instead, I was welcomed at the entrance by the honourable Dr Lynes (Ollie Lynes), proud to welcome me to the 9th Annual Geoffrey Chaucer Tale Telling Competition, who asked me to wait outside for a moment while the actors prepared.
After being shown to my seat by the competition organiser, a miller called Ned (Ned French) introduced himself and the audience members around me, telling me how good it was that I was there. On stage a couple of actors argued about their relative prowess, while I was offered a piece of cake and a raffle ticket for 50p. I had just walked into a play within a play.
The stage adaptation of The Canterbury Tales was presented as a competition between “The Finalists” whose aim it was to best retell Chaucer’s stories with the help of “The Players”. I do not think theatre has so effortlessly entertained me in a long time. The success of the script was that it made Chaucer’s tales of morality and different social statuses more accessible a modern day audience. We are constantly reminded that the finalists were in a competition – perhaps at a village fete you might go to on a Saturday afternoon in summertime.
The performance as a whole was well-communicated by the Hill College Theatre Company. They were the ones who spontaneously spoke to us before the show and parodied the very competition they presented, so that every audience member was involved and entertained. The actors themselves had a great time and it rubbed off.
The Knight’s Tale was well structured and controlled, as befitted the noble Sir Charlie (Charlie Cussons), who told the first story. The Nun Priest’s Tale was naughty but nice, with two jolly hockey-sticks students jumping into bed with a miller’s wife and daughter, sweetly related by Sarah Priest (Sarah Watson). The Reeve’s Tale had a sexy American charm, inspired by Kay Reeve (Kay Hetherington) who came all the way from the States to tell her tale. There was a serious edge to the Franklin’s Tale, narrated by the finalist Thomas Franklin (Tom Spenser), whereby we were asked who was the most moral in a lover’s triangle. Finally, The Pardoner’s Tale, retold by Niamh Pardoner (Niamh Murphy), required audience participation, and ended in a lively death scene.
The Canterbury Tales outwitted all reviewers. It would be impossible to say anyone acted badly, because a lot of the time that was precisely the point. If any of The Players got too good, a comic comment would stop it from getting too serious. The Players would sometimes lose the thread of their speech with a clumsy colloquialism, before swallowing deliberately hard and continuing. The rhyme of the verse was terrible, but we were still laughing.
The cast were a lively team. The characters stayed true to themselves and interacted with one another consistently. Ned was the persistent butt of the joke. The miller continued to play the comic role, bridging each tale with dirty stand-ups and playing the donkey and soothsayer in the tales.
Attention to small details kept us in the modern day. The plays were littered with small touches, from Iceland bags to film music and modern day stereotypes. This sat humorously alongside medieval knights. Dr Lynes, the Chaucer expert overseeing the competition, had the air of a Durham academic, with his flat feet and hands placed firmly in the pockets of his chinos. Filled with in-jokes for the Durham University student, this could not have been performed anywhere else and was made all the more fun for it.
There were witty asides aplenty piled on top of the script throughout, which added to the originality of the production. We as the audience were part of theatre in the making. There was a surprising twist contained in the end, which stays within the four walls of the theatre: as Dr Lynes warned us, we wouldn’t want Palatinate to hear about it.
A night at the Canterbury Tales was an evening of entertainment. The audience were fully involved and the only people who might not have enjoyed it are those people who grumble at the back and complain about their privacy. The Canterbury Tales was about the idea of theatre itself, interacting with the audience and making every person a theatre maker.