A Bawdy Journey to 'Canterbury'

By Joseph Garaventa
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

To anyone whose most vivid memory of "The Canterbury Tales" is wading through Chaucer's 14th-century stories in school -- all the while grappling with Middle English verse -- the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage adaptation may be eye-opening, if not eyebrow-raising.

Kennedy Center audiences will be exposed to bawdy humor, flashes of nudity and, well, flatulence. Wait -- is this "The Canterbury Tales" as interpreted by Larry the Cable Guy?

Not at all, says Rebecca Gatward, one of three RSC directors who have staged Chaucer's tales in two parts, each three hours long, with 20 actors and three musicians.

"We've all tried to just serve the stories as clearly as we possibly can," Gatward says.

"Chaucer has a very cheeky sense of humor. What is shocking about these stories is that they come from a medieval imagination. We think it's a 21st-century thing, seeing a lot of sex on television and so forth. I think it's always been a part of the English psyche. We have a slightly prudish nature on the one hand, and yet we've always been rather obsessed with body parts."

Chaucer's tales, fueled by the foibles of human nature, are spun by a wildly diverse group of pilgrims as a way of passing the time on a journey to visit the Saint Thomas a Becket shrine in Canterbury. The motley characters include a knight, a nun, a miller, a merchant and the formidable Wife of Bath, who has had five husbands and argues for the sovereignty of women.

Although Gatward says the tales have been staged in the sequence that scholars believe Chaucer intended (the work was never completed), the RSC production's two parts are not chronological and can be seen on separate evenings in any order.

It's certainly unusual for a show, even one of this length, to have three directors, but Gatward says the aim was to reflect the diverse voices of Chaucer's storytellers. Her co-directors are Gregory Doran and Jonathan Munby; the stories were adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. So how do three directors helm one production?

"We began by pitching for tales and splitting them up between us, which was a very interesting process, because most of us got the tales we wanted to direct, and we didn't have to have any fights. Greg wanted to do 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' because he was desperate to use puppets. Jonathan wanted to do 'The Manciple's Tale' as a mini-opera, because it's so baroque."

"I really wanted to look at the women in Chaucer. Especially directing with the two boys, I felt I should wave the flag for some of the girls. Chaucer writes really interestingly for women. 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' is about women getting dominance. But I've also done ['The Clerk of Oxenford's Tale'], which is completely the opposite. It's about Patient Griselda, who does absolutely everything her husband tells her to. 'The Man of Law's Tale' is about a young Christian woman who gets thrust out into the world and has all sorts of terrible adventures.

" 'The Merchant's Tale' is Chaucer's rather naughty version of the Garden of Eden. A rich old man persuades a young girl to marry him, but then she becomes attracted to someone else.

"Chaucer is such a humanist. He realizes that religion only works if you take into account that we're all human beings. He clashes the sacred and the spiritual."

Gatward says audience members need not worry if their Middle English is a little rusty.

"We play a little trick, where we start it off in genuine Chaucer. At that point, the audience, if they've booked six hours, may be thinking, 'What have I done?' But, after a minute, we're into Mike Poulton's adaptation, which I think is brilliant and incredibly accessible. He's kept Chaucer's rhyming couplets, but it's really easy to follow.

"If you always thought, 'I ought to know my Chaucer' but you never bothered to sit down and read it, this is a brilliant way of becoming a Chaucer expert in two evenings. Yes, we know Chaucer is bawdy, but there is an incredible breadth in his work. He's absolutely a key source for Shakespeare plays and characters. If you're interested in Shakespeare, you'll be fascinated by Chaucer, too."

The Canterbury Tales Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater 202-467-4600 Through May 7

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