Regional Review: THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN (American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on March 3, 2023

in Theater-Regional


After a sold-out run at London’s Kiln Theatre, The Wife of Willesden has arrived in North America. Let me begin by saying that from now on, whenever I see the name Clare Perkins (Alvita, the Wife of Willesden) on a cast list, I plan to see that show. The woman is, to use the cliché, a force of nature. Her every utterance, every movement of her eyes, her mouth, her shoulders, her hips, her hands delivers some emotional punch—or caress. I think I’m in love, and it’s no wonder the woman has had five husbands! Who could resist? (I refer, naturally, to her character having had all those spouses; I know nothing about Perkins’s marital history.) From what I can tell, this run is Perkins’ first appearance on a stage outside of the U.K., so if you’re in Boston until March 17 (or in Brooklyn April 1–16) don’t pass up this opportunity.

But my admiration is not limited to Perkins. One can’t overlook the brilliance of this script and concept. Zadie Smith has written a retelling of Chaucer’s six-hundred-year-old Middle English account in verse. Don’t let that put you off—the rhyming only highlights the humor and propels the action. The famously long prologue (it flies by) is set in a pub in Willesden, a London neighborhood whose demographics include a high proportion of ethnically South Asian and Caribbean people.

Alvita steps up to the mic during a storytelling contest, and the rest, as they say, is history—or perhaps literature. Before she tells her story, she recounts her own life experiences and those who shared in them, including her various husbands (the gorgeous Marcus Adolphy and the each-attractive-yet-flawed-in-their-own-way George Eggay, Andrew Frame, Troy Glasgow, and Scott Miller), Alvita’s god-fearing Aunty P (Ellen Thomas), bartender Polly (Claudia Grant), and the statuesque patron Zaire Jessica Murain. Other than Alvita, who as storyteller is on stage throughout the performance, all these performers fill the roles of multiple characters. Adolphy, for example, in addition to playing ex-husband Winston, appears briefly as both Nelson Mandela and Black Jesus, giving you a hint of the scope of this work. Zadie Smith herself praises them in the program notes better than I ever could: “Their visual and physical imaginations. The creativity they seem to hold in their gestures, in their very beings. Rhyming word games are one thing; embodiment is quite another.”

The A.R.T. being the A.R.T., there is no shortage of stagecraft brought to bear on this wonderful production by Robert Jones (sets), Guy Hoare (lights) Ben and Max Ringham (composers and sound). Both director Indhu Rubashingham and associate director Hannah Hauer-King bring gusto and light to the work.

The stage took advantage of the full width of the Loeb Drama Center, seating some audience members at tables and benches on the set. The shelves of spirits with their colored labels reminded me of a library; perhaps that was no accident. Dancing (Imogen Knight) was ebullient and the fighting (Kev McCurdy) well-staged and punctuated with satisfying sound effects.

Once Alvita finishes introducing herself, she tells us her tale: it’s a story set in Jamaica. A “young maroon” (Troy Glasgow) rapes a young woman (Nikita Johal). Queen Nanny (Jessica Murain) wants to mete out “restorative justice”: she sentences the man to travel for a year and a day. His task is to discover: What do women want? And if he fails to do so, his sentence will be death. Through many frustrating attempts to learn the answer to this question, he is finally given a choice: the wife who has forced him to marry her in exchange for giving him what will be the life-saving answer to this puzzle can be beautiful but unfaithful or ugly but loyal. “You decide,” he says at last, and that is the correct answer. In other words, what women want is the power to decide what happens in their own lives and bodies. A conclusion that still escapes some people.

It’s a serious point, but this is a bawdy production, and so Alvita follows her story with this prayer (closely adapted from Chaucer) addressed to “Lawd Jesus Christ” —

           Send us meek, young husbands who are good in bed
          And let us long outlive the men we wed!

photos by Marc Brenner.web

The Wife of Willesden
American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University
Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square, Cambridge
ends on March 17, 2023
foe tickets, visit A.R.T.

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