Heads and Tales
The Stage Club gives the stage to Geoffrey Chaucer
By Richard Lord
Geoffrey Chaucer never wrote for the theatre. (Of course, the theatre environment was not too healthy in his day.) Even so, Master Geoffrey produced some of the most remarkable characters and stories in the history of the English language. Just from The Canterbury Tales, his never completed magnus opus, we can see scores of wonderful characters trotting out, demanding to be put onto the stage or into film.
Singapore's Stage Club is certainly not the first group to discover the stage potential of Chaucer's most famous work. In fact, this was not even the first time they have discovered it, having done the Tales twice before. In this 2006 edition, the Club did one new tale with a mostly different cast from their last go back in 2001. The result was delightful, a really fun piece of entertainment that engaged the audience from the first moments to the last.
The Club's dramatisation of the Tales opens and closes with Chaucer's own framing device. First, Geoffrey Chaucer (played by Peter Lugg) recited the famous prologue and then we found ourselves in The Tabard tavern on the outskirts of London, as a rambunctious group of pilgrims is about to engage on a religious trek to Canterbury. But they never proceed any further from the tavern than the telling of stories to amuse themselves for the trip.
This show was meant to entertain, so the Stage Club troupe chose only the most comic pieces from the Tales. In this case, four: The Wife of Bath's tale, the Reeve's, The Merchant's and The Pardoner's.
Humour of the broadest sort was the common element in all the pieces, directed by four different individuals. The evening featured lots of cheap, bawdy visuals: for instance, the man in the Wife of Bath's Tale was given a toy horse, which he put hard between his legs in a clearly suggestive way. And any time a tale allowed the characters to engage in sex, they bounced around like they were on a see-saw with an extra-powerful spring attached.
Overall, the production was not tight, but lively, especially the finale with the whole ensemble together. However, exuberance was just what a show like this called for and as for the lack of tightness, it actually contributed to the general atmosphere that made this such a fun show.
And unabashed fun was the main principle at play here. The texts, which were not only in Modern English, but in contemporary English with plenty of topical references, never traded off fun for high purpose. The Club went with shamelessly bad rhymes, such as "He put his heart in/Just like Ricky Martin" and got away with it simply because audacity played so well here.
There were a number of strong, clever visual bits, such as in The Pardoner's Tale where lager louts Tom, Dick and Harry raise their tankards, then pull out beer cans. But even when the set and props were spare, the exuberant humour made the tale a delight.
My personal favourite amongst the tales here was The Pardoner's, which also won the audience poll the night I attended. (In true Tabard tavern fashion, host Harry Bailey carried out a vote to see which was the top crowd-pleaser.) But I would not fault any of the pieces, as they were all cleverly conceived and imaginatively staged.
As one thing about this particular Pardoner's Tale that disappointed me is that the pardoner himself (played by the very able Steve Armstrong) never made his hypocritical pitch to sell pardons or holy relics made of real chicken-bone. That final spin on the story might have been difficult, but it also could have been funny as hell.
The cast was quite large and of different levels of experience and abilities. Praise has to go to all of them for their contributions to the ensemble success of the evening, but certain players can still be singled out for special mention. Here I would include Barry Woolhead as Harry Bailey and Angela Barolsky as his barmaid and the future Mrs Bailey; Paul Robson, Warren Bullock and Steve Clark as Tom, Dick and Harry respectively, the three medieval football hooligans who set out to thrash Death in The Pardoner's Tale; Steve Armstrong as the Knight in The Wife of Bath's Tale; Elizabeth Tan and Peter Davey in The Merchant's Tale; and...
Oh heck, let me just repeat my commendation to the whole cast. I had written down four people who were somewhat weak, but even these four also had their stronger moments. Moreover, I think that being negative here violates the spirit of this particular show. The Stage Club's Canterbury Tales, 2006 edition, never aimed at high art. It aimed at our funny bones and tickled them far more often than they missed. Any group that can mount a large-scale show like this and still make such a claim deserves but one response.
I raise my glass. Cheers!QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006