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In a London pub, ‘The Wife of Willesden’ isn’t holding back

Clare Perkins shown in rehearsal for "The Wife of Willesden."Marc Brenner

There’s a feeling that British actress Clare Perkins gets when she reads an intriguing role, a “fire” of sorts that makes her want to take part. So when she learned of the character Alvita, the leading lady of author and essayist Zadie Smith’s book and first play, “The Wife of Willesden,” which the American Repertory Theater is presenting Feb. 25-March 17, Perkins knew it would be “a good character to bring to the stage.”

Alvita, a Jamaican woman in her mid-50s, is Smith’s adaptation of Alison, the “Wife of Bath” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” And though Chaucer’s Alison, a European woman who talked of her desires and multiple husbands, and Smith’s Alvita appear to be quite different at first glance, “the spirit is the same,” Smith writes in the book’s introduction.


For many, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” made up of 24 stories, was required reading in school. But it’s Alison’s story from the “Wife of Bath” that was anomalous at the time. Despite the abuse she had suffered, she was witty, confident, and lived as she pleased.

Chaucer historian Marion Turner writes in her book “The Wife of Bath: A Biography” that Alison “is the first ordinary woman in English literature . . . the first mercantile, working, sexually active woman — not a virginal princess, or queen, not a man, witch, or sorceress, not a damsel in distress, nor a functional servant character, not an allegory.”

This ordinary woman in Smith’s play — where Canterbury gets swapped for Willesden — is also an unreliable narrator who holds court in a local pub.

“She says that she’s not going to tell any lies, and then at certain points, if you listen carefully, she says things that are not necessarily true,” Perkins explains. “She’s not looking to make any friends. She’s just looking to tell her tale.”


What the five-times-married Alvita does hope for, Perkins shares, is a good relationship and fulfilling sex life. “She says it often enough; she’s all about pleasure.”

"The Wife of Willesden" director Indhu Rubasingham (left) and playwright Zadie Smith.Marc Brenner

Smith’s contemporary tale of “The Wife of Willesden,” written in rhyming couplets, premiered at London’s Kiln Theatre, close to where Smith grew up, in 2021 and recently wrapped another run there.

The play was written to be part of the festivities when Smith’s local district Brent was designated as the “London Borough of Culture 2020.” Because of the designation, Brent was provided funding to host cultural events for a year. However, the pandemic pushed everyone involved to adapt. A digital festival included a video series that featured Smith. During lockdown, Smith and Indhu Rubasingham, the play’s director and artistic director of the Kiln, and a creative team continued to work on the piece over Zoom.

“The writing was so powerful and evocative, and it was amazing to read,” Rubasingham says.

The work, which features a diverse set of characters, from a church-going aunty to a Nigerian pastor to a Polish bailiff, along with appearances from Nelson Mandela and Black Jesus, is fully in line with the Kiln’s mission of staging work “which presents the world through a variety of different lenses, amplifying unheard voices into the mainstream.”

The voices in “The Wife of Willesden” are heard in a local pub called Sir Colin Campbell set on the historic Kilburn High Road, which “originated as an ancient trackway, part of a Celtic route between the settlements now known as Canterbury and St Albans,” according to Kilburnforum.com.


When shaping the pub’s environment, Rubasingham thought a lot about how to make it alluring.

She wanted to create “an immersive experience and make the audience feel like they were in the pub,” she says. “So, the audience has to be part of this community as opposed to sitting back and observing it.”

In the story, Alvita takes listeners from the pub to her native Jamaica, regaling the crowd with tales of her lovers and more. But with a small ensemble playing multiple roles, Rubasingham and the team had to be innovative when signaling a new character without significant costume changes. She thought about how to make the place and the people come alive, how to delineate the husbands, and what the other characters would be doing when they’re watching Alvita.

A lot of those decisions, Rubasingham says, were managed by the creative team as the piece was storyboarded, but “also a lot of those things were found in the rehearsal room with the actors.”

Smith was present for those rehearsals early on, and Rubasingham appreciated the collaboration. “If you’re trying to investigate something, instead of trying to imagine what the writer meant, you’ve got the writer right there,” she says.

Since its premiere, the play hasn’t changed much through its performances. “It’s more like a deepening of what’s happened,” Perkins says. “There are these lovely little inventive things that the other actors in the room have come up with.”


That’s part of the fun for Perkins, a lover of musicals (as is Rubasingham) who had always wanted to be an actress. Growing up, she and her sister would spend some nights performing all the songs from “West Side Story” in their bedroom instead of going to sleep. Since those early days, she’s appeared in a long list of TV shows, films, and theater productions; a few of those roles were fierce females like Alvita.

Perkins delivered an epic speech about anger when she played the title role (which she shared with two other actresses) in the play “Emilia” as the woman who was rumored to be Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”; she portrayed Meridian, the title character of Alice Walker’s book of the same name, as a college student who becomes involved in the civil rights movement; and in the recent British TV series “The Outlaws,” she played a gay activist.

Luckily characters like Alison of Bath and Alvita, who resist the norm, love who they want, and live how they want, are no longer strangers to the page, or even big and small screens. And Perkins is grateful for it.

“It’s a great time because people are casting older, they’re casting Blacker, and there are more women,” she says.

“It’s a very fortunate time.”


At American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Feb. 25-March 17. Tickets from $30. 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.org


Jacquinn Sinclair can be reached at jacquinnw@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @jwills1.