(Desiree Ibekwe’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/12; via Pam Green. Photo: From left, the actress Clare Perkins, who plays the lead in “The Wife of Willesden”; the writer Zadie Smith; and the director Indhu Rubasingham, at the Kiln Theater in London.Credit…Adama Jalloh for The New York Times.)
Two decades into her career, the writer’s stage debut is “The Wife of Willesden,” an adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s tale set and staged in the British capital.
LONDON — Zadie Smith grew up around the corner from the Kiln Theater, which sits on the bustling Kilburn High Road in Northwest London. She took drama classes at the theater as a child and remembers when a fire caused significant damage to the building more than 30 years ago.
Now, her relationship with the theater has become even more intertwined, with the Kiln’s staging of Smith’s first play, “The Wife of Willesden,” which runs until Jan. 15.
“It’s very moving, if I allow myself to think about it very much — which I don’t, we don’t have time,” Smith, 46, said in a recent interview at the theater. “We’ve got work to do.”
“The Wife of Willesden” — which opened on Friday — is an adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s tale from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” transposing the prologue and tale into a love letter to contemporary London (Willesden is an area neighboring the theater).
“Doing this is really, genuinely new, having colleagues and stuff, wearing a lanyard,” Smith said, laughing, during a lunch break from rehearsals. “This is a new part of my life.”
Indhu Rubasingham, the show’s director, said that she had entered the creative partnership with Smith with some trepidation. When Smith is writing a novel, “She’s on her own. She doesn’t have to check in with anyone,” said Rubasingham, who is also the theater’s artistic director. “I was like, ‘Oh God, this is going to be a whole different experience, how is she going to take it?’”
As it turned out, “She’s been incredibly collaborative, really,” Rubasingham said.
“The Wife of Willesden” is not the first time that Smith has explored different forms of writing. This year, she released a children’s book, “Weirdo,” co-written with her husband, Nick Laird, a novelist and poet, and she appeared as a songwriter and background vocalist on “91,” the lead track of Jack Antonoff’s most recent Bleachers album.
The play weaves together several threads from Smith’s life. It was written as part of the celebrations for the local district of Brent’s designation as the “London Borough of Culture 2020” — a project established three years ago by the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, that awards money to an area of the city to put on a yearlong program of cultural events.
Smith, who sat in on the first few weeks of rehearsals, described watching the actors as “even more enjoyable” than the writing process.
“It’s genuinely been lovely seeing the actors,” she said. “I hear voices, but it’s different when people have bodies attached and they add so much.”
Writing the play itself, Smith said, was like “really interesting homework.” She remembered having to translate Chaucer into contemporary English during her studies at Cambridge University.
“So I’ve done it before, but I’ve never done it in a way that was enjoyable for me or anyone else,” she said, laughing.
“The Canterbury Tales,” written by Chaucer in about the late 14th century, is a collection of 24 stories told by a group of pilgrims during their journey to Canterbury Cathedral, 60 miles east of London.
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 she shares her beliefs on femininity and sexuality, critiquing the value that medieval society placed on virginity.
“I’ve always liked the Wife of Bath, I read it in college,” Smith said. “Just incredible energy in this character, just so wild. I like writing women like that.”