The multi-award winning, best-selling novelist Zadie Smith has said she is "nervous" ahead of the world premiere of her first play. Smith has adapted The Wife of Bath's tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, translating a salacious 14th Century medieval text, written in rhyming couplets, into a contemporary story set in north-west London, where she was born and raised.
She is the author of five novels, including her award-winning debut White Teeth, about post-war multicultural Britain. She has also written numerous essays and ren's book.
But at the age of 46, playwriting is a departure and the author says it is "slightly overwhelming". However, she adds that it has been marvellous "not to be the only brain in the room".
So working with 10 actors and director Indhu Rubasingham has been "like a life force", she says. But the play came about by chance.
Smith describes it as "an odd story, an accidental adventure". When Brent submitted its bid to be London Borough of CultureSmith blithely agreed to participate. But it did, and under increasing pressure to come up with an idea "it kind of got a bit heavy" and in a growing panic, Smith looked at her bookshelf and spotted a copy of The Canterbury Tales.
On the spur of the moment, she suggested she could translate a short, -long "monologue" from The Wife of Bath's Tale, "because that's the one everybody remembers", which could then be published in a local magazine.
However, while she was flying to Australia, a news release was sent out announcing she was translating the whole of The Wife of Bath into a play. Smith was perturbed to say the least. But now, looking back on the project, she believes "it was a gift".
She compares writing the play to "homework", observing: "I respond very well to homework. Smith had translated Chaucer into contemporary English as a student at Cambridge University. I always had these handrails of Chaucer's, which was incredible. They're the best handrails you could hope for. The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories told by a group of pilgrims during their journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral.
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 shares her views on sexuality, consent and contempt for class privilege.
The Wife of Willesden explores the place of women in society and tells the story of Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mids who has also been married numerous times. It touches on misogyny, slut-shaming and domestic violence. I think people forget what's in it.
But then I thought, well, if it was said years ago, if they could take it then, then maybe they can take it now. It's incredibly rude.
It's very, I'd guess you'd call it sex positive. It's very unapologetic. However much she ended up enjoying working on The Wife of Willesden, Smith does not think she will write another play - unless she has "an incredibly good idea".
She has walked out of plays before the final curtain, though, she admits. That's been a feeling I've had in the theatre.
And if people were to walk out of her play? But "I'd have to defend the freedom of art appreciators of all kinds". In contrast, Smith believes you should always finish reading a book.
Crime writer Mark Billingham told the Cheltenham Festival earlier this year that if a novel had not gripped him within 20 s then he would "throw it across the room angrily". He added that he gave up on five out of every 10 books because "life's too short" and "there are so many great books out there".
Smith says: "No, I don't read that way.
I persist. I guess I maybe self-select a little earlier on to avoid books that I know I'm going to absolutely be bored by or hate.
It's something I want to get into when I'm reading, I don't want to cut loose. Now that The Wife of Willesden is written and on stage, she can return to working on her new novel, which she reveals is a historical work set in north-west London in the s.
Image source, Getty Images. Smith is also in the middle of writing her next novel. Image source, Marc Brenner.
Smith attended rehearsals with director Indhu Rubasingham. Image source, Mark Brenner. The play follows Chaucer's "very bawdy" tradition.
Related Topics. Literature Theatre Books. Published 30 August