Smith, the woman at the center of the work, has been praised for her innovation as well. She’s explored different voices, and now, different mediums. She is the author of the novels “White Teeth,” “The Autograph Man,” “On Beauty,” “NW,” and “Swing Time,” as well as essay collections “Changing My Mind,” “Feel Free,” and “Intimations,” and the collection of short stories “Grand Union.”
“The Wife of Willesden” marks Smith’s first foray as a playwright. In the new work she explores writing in traditional verse, while mixing in contemporary language and characters. Having grown up at the intersection of Kilburn, Willesden, and Queen’s Park in London with Jamaican heritage, Smith mixes adaptation with personal biography.
“Chaucer could not have imagined the way we have re-embodied his lines,” Smith said in a statement. “Yet I felt the presence in the rehearsal room, of Chaucer’s humor and bawdiness, his philosophical depth and intellectual perversity. All transformed by the process of passing through these various flesh-and-blood actors, with their human voices and human gestures, with which they are able to perform the miracle of turning text into experience, words into action, ideas into something like ‘life.’”
Smith’s work is being directed by Kiln Theatre Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham, who took over leadership of the historic theater in 2012. In that time she has produced award-winning projects such as “Handbagged,” which won the 2014 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. Having studied Chaucer in school, and now bringing it to life, she beams when reflecting on the way Smith has reimagined the characters.
“The dialogue, the writing is so real. Just like her books do, the characters sing off the page,” she said. “I really love that you’ve got a middle-aged, British Caribbean woman who is complex, who is sexual. And you just don’t see those women on stage.”
She adds that one of the challenges of directing the piece has been communicating the inclusive nature of the writing. Chaucer’s pilgrims, much like Smith’s pub-goers, are pretty distinct personalities but share a sense of community. Rubasingham has attempted to bring the audience into the fold by having some seats actually on the stage, at pub tables, and pub seating sprinkled throughout the audience.
“Having it set in a pub, and that celebration of storytelling and the production that’s in the script, is part of the idea of the audience being part of this world — that we’re all part of the community and sharing this story,” she said.
The curtain will rise on “The Wife of Willesden” at the Loeb Drama Center on Thursday. The play will complete its limited run on March 18, after which it will move to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.