Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is often cited as the beginning, not only of ‘modern’ English Literature and as the legitimation of the vernacular language. This version of one of those tales, by the exuberant Overo Theatre Company, puts the very discussion of the power of language at the heart of its production.
The Miller’s Tale is familiar Chaucer territory, dealing as it does with an old man married to a much younger woman and the shenanigans that occur when more attractive, younger men attempt to seduce her. Transferred from poetic page to stage, it is close to modern farce in style, involving as it does mistaken identity, disguise, and people hiding in boats to escape the Second Flood! Adapted by Ufuoma Overo-Tarim, the story is told with verve and not a little ingenuity, using a bare minimum of props on a basically empty stage. The tale does seem to transfer effortlessly to Nigeria. Most of the acting is strong, though several different styles are used, from the large and frankly over the top, to more subtle and naturalistic. One of the themes of Overo-Tarim’s adaptation is the power of language to pass on stories to the ordinary person, be that Middle English or Nigerian patois, and the way language is used to define social class. Sometimes it is a little hard to understand what is being said, but the company’s physicalities make up for this.
There’s no denying the company’s enthusiasm for the project. The costumes, music, and dance are fantastic, and the audience is carried along by the sheer pace and colour of it all. The script is good too, though as stated above it’s ironic that a piece so much about language and communication suffered from being somewhat unintelligible at times. My main problem, however, was with the direction that came across as naive and clumsy. Why were locations for scenes shouted from off stage, thus being muffled? Why did the actors wander around randomly giving the piece a lack of visual coherence? Why were entrances made from only one side of this large stage? Why were lights turned off during the tale’s most famous moments (the kissing of the nether ye, in case you don’t know)? Was this some kind of prurience? If so, don’t do Chaucer! A great part of the piece took place in very dim lighting indeed, a shame when the costumes and acting had so much to offer. Facial expression mean so much in comedy; if an audience is robbed of it, things will be only half as funny as they should be.
That said, this is a pleasant way to spend an hour in Edinburgh, and as good an introduction to the spirit of Chaucer’s original as I’ve seen.