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Zadie Smith’s First Play Brings Chaucer to Her Beloved Northwest London

LONDON — Zadie Smith grew up around the corner from the Kiln Theater, which sits on the bustling Kilburn High Road in Northwest London. She took drama classes at the theater as a child and remembers when a fire caused significant damage to the building more than 30 years ago.

Now, her relationship with the theater has become even more intertwined, with the Kiln’s staging of Smith’s first play, “The Wife of Willesden,” which runs until Jan. 15.

“It’s very moving, if I allow myself to think about it very much — which I don’t, we don’t have time,” Smith, 46, said in a recent interview at the theater. “We’ve got work to do.”

“The Wife of Willesden” — which opens on Thursday — is an adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s tale from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” transposing the prologue and tale into a love letter to contemporary London (Willesden is an area neighboring the theater).

The author of numerous essays and five novels — many of which, like “NW” and her debut, “White Teeth” are also set in northwestern London — Smith is a newcomer to playwriting.

“Doing this is really, genuinely new, having colleagues and stuff, wearing a lanyard,” Smith said, laughing, during a lunch break from rehearsals. “This is a new part of my life.”

Indhu Rubasingham, the show’s director, said that she had entered the creative partnership with Smith with some trepidation. When Smith is writing a novel, “She’s on her own. She doesn’t have to check in with anyone,” said Rubasingham, who is also the theater’s artistic director. “I was like, ‘Oh God, this is going to be a whole different experience, how is she going to take it?’”

As it turned out, “She’s been incredibly collaborative, really,” Rubasingham said.

“The Wife of Willesden” is not the first time that Smith has explored different forms of writing. This year, she released a children’s book, “Weirdo,” co-written with her husband, Nick Laird, a novelist and poet, and she appeared as a songwriter and background vocalist on “91,” the lead track of Jack Antonoff’s most recent Bleachers album.

The play weaves together several threads from Smith’s life. It was written as part of the celebrations for the local district of Brent’s designation as the “London Borough of Culture 2020” — a project established three years ago by the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, that awards money to an area of the city to put on a yearlong program of cultural events.

Smith described watching the actors rehearse as “even more enjoyable” than the writing process.Credit…Marc Brenner
Perkins, center, with other cast members during a rehearsal of “The Wife of Willesden” in October.Credit…Marc Brenner

Smith, who sat in on the first few weeks of rehearsals, described watching the actors as “even more enjoyable” than the writing process.

“It’s genuinely been lovely seeing the actors,” she said. “I hear voices, but it’s different when people have bodies attached and they add so much.”

Writing the play itself, Smith said, was like “really interesting homework.” She remembered having to translate Chaucer into contemporary English during her studies at Cambridge University.

“So I’ve done it before, but I’ve never done it in a way that was enjoyable for me or anyone else,” she said, laughing.

“The Canterbury Tales,” written by Chaucer in about the late 14th century, is a collection of 24 stories told by a group of pilgrims during their journey to Canterbury Cathedral, 60 miles east of London.

One of the pilgrims is called Alyson, or the Wife of Bath. In her tale’s prologue, she reveals that she has been married five times, and she shares her beliefs on femininity and sexuality, critiquing the value that medieval society placed on virginity.

“I’ve always liked the Wife of Bath, I read it in college,” Smith said. “Just incredible energy in this character, just so wild. I like writing women like that.”

Smith wanted to maintain as many Chaucerian elements as possible in her adaptation, she said, and the contours of the story remain the same, while the play’s dialogue is written in verse couplets.

She chose to do this rather than writing a new play because she views literature as a “long channel of writers talking to each other across generations, across countries, across epochs,” she said. She was also guided by her “perverse” love of a challenge.

“Restraint is what makes you creative,” Smith said. “You’re forced to go this way and that. That, to me, is real creativity.”

But “The Wife of Willesden” also made crucial departures from Chaucer’s text. The pilgrimage, in Smith’s retelling, is a pub crawl, and her “pilgrims” reflect the diversity of contemporary London. Instead of Chaucer’s knight, merchant and monk, Smith has characters you might see walking down Kilburn High Road, including a Nigerian pastor and a Polish bailiff.

From left, Perkins, Rubasingham and Smith. “She’s been incredibly collaborative, really,” Rubasingham said of Smith.Credit…Adama Jalloh for The New York Times

Smith translated Chaucer’s Middle English into a vernacular she has called “North Weezian,” and her “Wife of Willesden” is Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s who adorns herself in fake gold chains, wears fake Jimmy Choo heels and speaks in a mixture of London slang and patois. Her tale takes the form of Jamaican folklore, set in the 18th century. Like her progenitor, Alvita has also been married five times and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

In a back and forth with her religious Auntie P about sex and religion, Alvita tells her: “It’s true Paul said / He didn’t want us having sex for fun — / But it weren’t like: commandment number one. / Auntie, what you call laws I call advice.”

Referring to her character, Clare Perkins, who plays Alvita, said, “She’s striving for personal happiness.”

“She’s always reinventing herself and she’s always right there, in the middle of her life,” Perkins added.

The transformation of Alyson of Bath into Alvita of Northwest London was not, for Smith, a significant leap. In her introduction to the script, which was published by Penguin this month, she wrote “Alyson’s voice — brash, honest, cheeky, salacious, outrageous, unapologetic — is one I’ve heard and loved all my life: in the flats, at school, in the playgrounds of my childhood and then the pubs of my maturity.”

Smith doesn’t seem to overthink the prominence of Northwest London in her work. “If you grew up close to the streets, it just means something to you,” Smith said. “It was never an intention when I started, but there’s just something about the neighborhood. It really entertains me.”

While the play is in one sense a celebration of the setting, for Rubasingham, it’s also about acknowledging the hardships that the area has endured during the pandemic.

Covid-19 hit Brent particularly hard. At one point during the pandemic, the borough had the highest coronavirus death rate in England and Wales, as well as the highest number of furloughed workers.

Rubasingham said that the pandemic had exacerbated the existing fault lines in society around class and race. For her, the play is “also about saying we need to put these people, these characters, this world, on the main stage,” she said.

The play’s existence is also something of a happy accident. When Brent won its bid to become borough of culture, Smith agreed to contribute a piece of work. She initially envisaged a short monologue that might be performed by a local actress or published in a magazine.

But a news release was sent out saying that she was writing a play, so “then I had to write a play,” Smith said. And while it was “amazing fun,” she said she didn’t believe that she would ever write another.

“This is the one and only,” she said.

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