Fringe Box



Stage Dragon: Tales Left Me Laughing Uncontrollably

Published on: 22 Jul, 2023
Updated on: 22 Jul, 2023

Unadulterated enjoyment! The Canterbury Company takes centre stage in The Canterbury Tales in Stoke Park. Photo Mark Dean

By Ian Sadler

Dusty medieval language is stripped away from seven of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales this month and it left me laughing uncontrollably throughout the show.

The tales are delivered as an outdoor summer production by the Guildford Shakespeare Company in an anthology encompassing wide-ranging genres, adept puppetry, and performances liberally populated by high-energy slapstick.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s original 24 Canterbury Tales were presented as a story-telling competition by a group of pilgrims travelling together from London to Canterbury.

Brotherhood and swordplay infuse The Knight’s Tale (Shakespeare’s inspiration for The Two Noble Kinsman); academic duck Geoffrey Chausseur and the Elvis Presley-channelling rooster Chanticleer, give us The Nun’s Priest Tale; The Miller’s Tale, featuring Australian underpants, is pure bedroom farce; that age-old question “what is it that women most desire?” is posed in The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Springtime is here! GSC performs its musical rendition of ‘The General Prologue’. From left to right: Rosalind Blessed (percussion), Will Arundell (guitar), Matt Pinches (vocals), Nikita Johal (flute), Sarah Gobran (vocals). Photo Mark Dean

The Pardoner’s Tale encompasses religious corruption and clowns; The Franklin’s Tale delivers poignancy and magic; finally, The Summoner’s Tale introduces a new musical genre with a farting operetta!

Will Arundell, Rosalind Blessed, Nikita Johal, and GSC co-founders Sarah Gobran and Matt Pinches, portray The Knight, The Miller, The Franklin, The Wife of Bath, and The Pardoner respectively.

Between them the quintet also manages to play over 50 other characters, together with juggling
(literally in one instance) a dizzyingly disparate range of body language alterations, costume changes and props. Thrown in for good measure is Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s horse-riding/coconuts gag.

The fourth wall is not so much broken as shattered. Audience participation included creating a river and someone designated to impersonate Molly the sheep (this was my proud two-second acting debut with a perfectly pitched ‘BAAAAAH!’).

Cock-a-doodley-doo: Will Arundell, Nikita Johal and Sarah Gobran commandeer puppets: ‘Chanticleer the Rooster’ and ‘Fox’ in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Photo Mark Dean

The interval brings the opportunity to contribute answers to the previously posed, “What is it that women must desire?”. “A dagger and a really good hand sanitiser” provided the victorious response this time around (generating moderate concern as to whether a Lady Macbeth fan was lurking).

Additionally, the actors shamelessly entreat the audience into voting their tale as the best. Poor old Will is not scoring highly with The Knight’s Tale.

Guildford Shakespeare Company’s first incarnation of The Canterbury Tales was played in autumn 2014 in Guildford’s St Mary’s Church and original director Abigail Anderson has returned to reshape that autumnal interior-bound production into an expansive outdoor summer romp.

With original music composed by Mary McAdam, the updated setting conveys an atmosphere of an eclectic and outlying music festival stage.

It is sensible to introduce a note of caution for those considering taking very young children along. Chaucer’s original tales contained dark elements which can be at odds with our modern sensibilities, and whilst these are acknowledged and not dwelt upon, their mention might result in questions that parents may wish to avoid.

The breath of fresh air and unadulterated enjoyment created by this production can perhaps be summarised by the fact of having a genuinely hoarse voice after laughing uncontrollably for almost the entire duration of this beautifully tailored anarchic production.

The Canterbury Tales plays until Saturday 29 July at Guildford Shakespeare Company’s HQ, Astolat Pavilion, Lido Road, Stoke Park, Guildford. Click here to book.

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