The Wife of Willesden is a joyful commemoration of Brent being named the London Borough of Culture in 2020. This is a playwriting debut from critically acclaimed, multi-award winning, best-selling author Zadie Smith, who hails from the borough and has fondly written about it in her novels. Smith writes that this story came about as a spontaneous idea of what to write in celebration of this award. It’s a retelling of a classic 14th century play by Chaucer, The Wife of Bath, brought to 21st century Kilburn.
We are all in the same room: an unassuming audience in the Colin Campbell, a pub that brings to mind Eastenders’ Queen Vic – except, we’re on the other side of London. What unfolds is an open-mic storytelling competition with one main act: Alvita (Clare Perkins). Brimming with an unapologetically detailed candor, Alvita takes us through the story of all five of her marriages, with a brief stint in 18th century Jamaica for a leafy dimension of the story. As with any worthy story, Alvita is surrounded by fellow pub goers who form a dynamic crowd of listeners, husbands and divine visitors for a quick line of wisdom. There are bursts of song that, in tandem with the linguistic adaptations, bring this 14th century text to a North West London life.
By putting on this play, an ode to home, in a theatre Smith has a lifelong connection to through childhood drama classes and first-time theatre trips, there are elements of The Wife of Willesden that will ring true to anyone that shares this bond to Kiln Theatre and its surrounding area. But Smith brings numerous other relatable quips and characters to the stage. Each of Alvita’s five husbands represents a starkly different type of man: man with money; man warning against women with money; unfaithful man; abusive man. This cocktail of lovers Alvita so openly tells us about, with the one liners about reformative justice and women deserving autonomy and orgasms, gives every audience member something to audibly react to.
An earlier iteration of The Wife of Willesden was a monologue, which is hard to believe when you see the vibrant, synchronised community onstage. That being said, Alvita undoubtedly carries the show. The other central characters, Publican Polly (Jessica Clark) and Alvita’s best friend Zaire (Crystal Condie), are at times parodically animated, or enraged by the system from a more hypothetical angle (we didn’t hear many stories of their own) to meet Alvita’s lived experience. Perkins had a fluorescent, inviting approachability on stage: the air of either a stranger or friend who will happily share her wisdom with you for hours, and is also deeply invested in making sure you find the highs and avoid the lows she has experienced.
While everything around Alvita was dramatic and brilliantly choreographed by director Indhu Rubasingham, Alvita herself brought to the stage-cum-pub a spontaneity that perhaps perfectly captures what Smith wanted to share with us all about her home borough. Watching this play is a merry, dramatised look into a community held dear by so many. I wonder whether it should become tradition for the London Borough of Culture to put on a play that encapsulates the unique essence of the spotlight culture (looking at you, Lewisham).
For the Wife of Willesden’s tale within the play, we are transported to an 18th century Jamaican Maroon community. This is a heartfelt yet entertaining opportunity to learn about Jamaican history via a tale that leads us towards the moral of this play’s story. Outside of this tale, the ‘flagship’ Jamaican character beside Alvita is her conservative, Christian aunt who is outspoken in her opinions on Alvita’s lifestyle. At times, I wonder who Smith had in mind as she wrote this play: were the Jamaican history and accents written in such a way that everyone would understand everything, or with something for the Jamaican members of the audience to enjoy when they come to the show? More often than not, Alvita’s Patois and Jamaican turns of phrase were wheeled out for comedic effect, which was of course met with laughter from the audience. As a Jamaican woman watching the show, however, I didn’t necessarily feel that there were a lot of moments for those of us who don’t find Jamaican parlance so funny.
The Wife of Willesden captures the art of storytelling, with all its tenuous and welcomed tangents. Although the closing ‘moral’ of the story might not be immediately clear to those who aren’t familiar with The Wife of Bath, we are all able to bask in this community’s celebration and dramatising of Alvita’s wise words. Some of the feminist messages that Alvita, Publican Polly and Zaire landed on felt a little on the nose, but understandably so as these messages are largely brought over in this faithful retelling of a 14th century tale. While I think that this play would do well to avoid shoehorning in Jamaican accents and the word ‘patriarchy’ to signal modernity in this centuries-old text, the lasting impression of The Wife of Willesden is a joyous coming together of a community that does well in inviting us to their well-earned celebration.
The Wife of Willesden is on at Kiln Theatre till 15th January 2022. More info here.