The Cantabrigian Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Pilgrims pitched their tents…

Following the whacked-out zaniness that theatre company in situ brought to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I decided to check out their follow-up production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Being staged at The Leper Chapel in Cambridge, an intimate, 30-person capacity church, we were surprised to see tents set up around the venue upon our arrival. But then again, this is in situ…expect to have your expectations dashed.

We were greeted and ushered into the chapel, where upon entering we see a motley bunch of characters, attired rather scrappily in all manner of gear. Some of the pilgrims were clear from their dress, whereas others were pretty much in contemporary garb with Nike rucksacks.

After some communal chanting and humming, each character introduces themselves in middle English, before popping to the front of the group and saying something like “I’m the Miller, my tale is about x, y and z, and if you’d like to hear more, please follow me outside.” The play therefore takes a kind of open promenade format, where the pilgrims pitch up their tents outside the chapel, whilst you wander around at will, dipping in and out of the stories you wish to hear.

This makes reviewing the play actually somewhat difficult, because we ultimately saw only four of the eleven tales on offer that evening. Luckily the tales are compressed massively and the language is contemporised, although the tellers will often drop in Chaucerian quotes and explain them, often in a very humorous way.

The standouts (that we saw) were Richard Spaul’s Miller’s Tale, one of the bawdier of Chaucer’s canon. Spaul played up the filthiness masterly, managing to mime anal-licking and quote Barack Obama within the same sentence. Historical inaccuracies are played up for laughs, and the idea here is that the teller really leaves their imprint on the tale. This does not just go for Chaucer’s fictional tellers, but in situ’s actors as well, who don’t try to embody their characters realistically, but try to leave their own mark on the tale as well.

This worked particularly well with Kathleen Richardson’s rendition of The Knight’s Tale, which was really quite innovative and far removed from the original. Camped out in a fortune teller’s stall behind the chapel, she narrated the (greatly condensed) tale mainly through tarot cards. Occasionally, Richardson would break out of the tale and digress on the nature and meaning of tarot, giving some indication as to why she’d chosen this means of exposition. Ultimately, this was a very personal performance that tried to carry a bit more meaning than some of the bawdier tales on offer.

Meanwhile, inside the chapel: all the pilgrims who are currently on ‘standby’ deliver lectures on various aspects of medieval history related to their tales. Audience members can come and go as they please, even following a pilgrim inside if they particularly liked their story in order to get further information. This was a fantastic idea, although we didn’t devote too much time to it, wanting to cram in as many actual tales as possible.

At the end of the evening, a bell was rung, the pilgrims all file into the chapel, and build up a polyphonic chant. This builds to an overwhelming drone as more and more of the pilgrims join in line, until they raise they arms…and bow. Yet again, in situ have built-up a thoroughly original and entertaining take on a classic, and I certainly recommend you get on down to The Leper Chapel this week.

The Canterbury Tales is playing June 25-29 at The Leper Chapel, off Newmarket Road, Cambridge.

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