A Brilliant Bitesize Chunk of Chaucer.
The Creation Theatre Company have always had a knack for producing a little bit of magic. This perhaps stems from the company’s penchant for turning day-to-day places into theatre spaces: a recent, acclaimed production of Don Quixote took over Oxford’s Covered Market, and in years gone by there were enchanting Christmas shows in a spiegeltent (a German travelling mirror tent), erected temporarily in a frosty corner of the BMW plant car park. Wednesday evening bore witness to yet another metamorphosis, as Creation Theatre transplanted Chaucer to the neon lights and upmarket décor of the James Street Tavern’s beer garden, where spectators, huddled together under blankets and patio heaters, were treated to a short but compelling adaptation of ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’.
The source material is darkly funny, with the Pardoner sermonizing that greed is the root of all evil whilst simultaneously promising to forgive the avaricious if they cross his palm with silver. The production manages to maintain this irony and humour while also giving the piece a contemporary revamp: the cast of three arrive with Sainsbury’s Bags for Life stuffed full of doughnuts; their warnings about the dangers of gluttony are as much in reference to booze as to box sets, while during discussions of neediness there are nods to social media. Thankfully there’s no battle with Chaucerian English either, as the language has been updated, melding a traditional, more poetic style with modern slang. There are sections of rhymed meter, but it’s never so reductive as to preclude occasional outbursts and ad-libbing, and as a result the verbal sparring between the trio really zings.
The actors are unapologetically demonstrative too: intense, wide-eyed, they prowl the terrace hollering, exactly the kind of slightly maniacal figures that you fear might try and bend your ear on the street or in the pub, uttering some universal truth. Whenever things risked becoming too serious, one actor might drag down the proselytising rhetoric of another with some bawdy innuendo or a moment of farce, all well-received by the audience. The actors did interact with the crowd, but fortunately not in a panic-inducing way that put anyone one on the spot: they sat at tables, pilfered possessions and offered round a smorgasbord of (fairly dubious) sacred relics. The second half of the play is the Pardoner’s moral tale, about three drunkards who try to cheat death (a tale that would inspire J.K. Rowling when writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), which involves plenty of scheming and comically drawn-out death throes (“Are you done?”).
All the elements combine well to form an engaging and hilarious performance that earned hearty applause from the crowd. The setting and the brevity of the piece are an enjoyable contrast to the more formal ordeal that going to the theatre can be, and I thought (perhaps wishfully) that some members of the audience were unwitting pub-goers who had heard about the performance at the bar and bought a ticket on the night, enticed by the sound of some drama on an October evening. It will be intriguing to see if and how the performance changes in the Covered Market and Blackwell’s, the venues to come. After the applause, it was explained that this play is an experiment, a means of testing the water to see if there was scope for more extensive adaptation of The Canterbury Tales. If this pilot performance is anything to go by, Creation Theatre are more than capable of bringing Chaucer’s collection to life, in whichever beer garden or bookshop takes their fancy.
CREDIT TO: Sean Maclachlan