What more appropriate setting could there be for a performance of 'The Canterbury Tales' than the medieval setting of Abingdon Abbey? At the time of its dissolution the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary at Abingdon was the sixth wealthiest monastery in England. These fascinating buildings provided the perfect atmosphere to take us back to the times and tales of Chaucer's characters.
The actors began by taking us back to the days of courtly love, elegantly dancing in the Checker Hall, which had possibly been the residence of the Granator, or the site of his granary in 1554. The simple, rural dances and music were carefully researched and choreographed by Deidre Jones.
Following this pleasant interlude, we made our way to the Unicorn Theatre for the tales themselves. This intimate theatre, with its fine 15th century timbered roof, was restored in 1953 by The Friends of Abingdon. Unfortunately, there was a most unpromising start to the performance, as a churlish, unkempt knave grumpily ushered us to our seats, berating us for our tardiness. This churlish behaviour was in marked contrast to the elegant courtesy of Irene Kirkman, who efficiently carried out her Front of House duties throughout the evening,
We were most courteously welcomed by the Master of Ceremonies, who introduced the tale telling competition and assured us that no rudeness would be allowed in this performance and that 'The Miller's Tale' was definitely BANNED! The uncouth chap, (who turned out to be the Miller) complained most rudely at this and to shut him up was promised that he could tell the Top Ten Mediaeval Mucky stories. Finally the competition of the telling of Chaucer's Tales got under way. Each tale was introduced by articulate and expressive narrators, who drew us into the tales with tantalising comments and knowing innuendos alongside the action.
In 'The Canterbury Tales' Chaucer explores one of the eternal mysteries of life - the relationship between men and women. In his tales, he exposes the foolish vanities and gullibility of old men, the lechery and infidelity of both sexes and concludes that the only solution for man is to bow to "the governance of women".
The Knight's dramatic tale of love and the intervention of fate set a high standard for the other tales to follow. How pleased the lovely Emily must have been to have two men in love with her, both prepared to "fight ankle deep in blood" to win her favour. Tragically the winning suitor falls foul of fate and is killed by a blow to his head. After seven years, Emily sensibly stops mourning and marries the noble Palamon.
The plight of the foolish, lusty young man who unwisely scattered his seed on young virgins was ably portrayed by Adam Blake. The noble Queen, Jill Calvert kindly saved him from death by setting him the impossible task of discovering "What women do most desire?" His initial reluctance to go to bed with the ugly hag portrayed so effectively by Lynne Smith was perhaps understandable but fortunately when he finally learned his lesson and agreed to be governed by his wife, she was transformed into a beauty.
Greed is a prevalent theme in many of the tales. The greed for wealth was clearly conveyed in 'The Pardoner's Tale', where the lecherous likely lads, Tom Dick and Harry succeeded only in discovering that their greed led them to the unavoidable charms of Death. A fitting end for these wastrels, played so well by John Hawkins, Adam Blake and Allen Dannfald. Surely not type-cast?
Foolish characters were very well portrayed, particularly January in The Merchant's Tale who needed 'bionic support' in his attempts to woo his beautiful young wife, May. However, even this tonic could not improve Jon Crowley's impressively doddery, impotence as her husband, leaving the lovely May with no choice but to succumb to the lusty charms of Damien. Who could not then fail to be convinced by Sarah Frost's artful explanation upon being caught up a tree with Damien, that she was only acting upon a dream for the benefit of her husband so that he could regain his sight? Who could doubt her sincerity and good intentions?
The well choreographed dancing continued throughout the plays, including the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This proved to be an unforgettable performance from Lynne Smith and Adam Blake and I check the bottom of my garden every night for stray fairies!
The performance of Allen Dannfald as Chanticleer succeeded in convincing us of the vanity of mankind. His preening was a highlight - one could clearly envisage the cockerels at Millett's Farm as he strutted up and down in his glorious self-satisfaction. The hens were also perfect in their portrayal of 'fowlish' panic as the elegant, cunning foxy Lin Beekar prowled into the farmyard. Who could possibly resist her flattery?
There were some very mucky sides of life depicted in these tales of debauchery. Who was sleeping with whom in the confusion of the night? There was a memorable performance from Dobbin, who wisely seemed to turn a blind eye to all this bed-fellow swapping! And after all, who would not agree that the avaricious Miller, played so maliciously and mercilessly by Keith Hales, got what he deserved for being so greedy?
Unfortunately, the cultural tone of the competition was lowered by Adam Blake, who rudely insisted on telling his banned tale of lust and further debauchery. Again, who could blame the saucy Ruth Lester for preferring lusty Allen Dannfald, to her foolish, feeble old husband, Jon Crowley? The moral for the love sick Absalom is surely that one should not go around kissing bodily parts stuck out of windows without first ascertaining what part it is! The painful effects of the red-hot poker should surely serve as a warning to all against the sins of the flesh.
However, the audience seemed not to have taken any notice of Chaucer's moral warnings against immoral behaviour, as they enthusiastically acclaimed The Miller's Tale to be the unanimous winner of the competition! Much to the delight and satisfaction of The Miller!
The smooth performance of The Tales was facilitated by the ASM, Malcolm Ross, whose props, especially the corn grinding machine and the Horses, created the right comic effects to complement the acting. Music and dancing, lighting and sound also added credibility to the characters' performances.
This was an excellent performance of The Canterbury Tales. The modern dialogue of Phil Woods and Michael Bogdanov, was intelligently and creatively directed by Eileen Bagshaw. The comic and foolish aspects of mankind made us laugh but did not mask some of the more profound messages of Chaucer's tales, leaving the audience to reflect through the chivalry of the Franklin's Tale: "Who owed the greatest debt to life?"
Many thanks also to Dorothy Rockall of The Friends of Abingdon for kindly providing me with a booklet of Abingdon Abbey which provided most interesting historical background. I greatly enjoyed the evening and the company of this very friendly Abingdon Drama Club. I shall return to The Unicorn to see many more of the performances from this highly talented group of actors.