The Canterbury Tales, Swan, Stratford

What do you mean, we're only having a laugh?
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The Independent Culture

A grassy sward, with a sheen of dew, covers the thrust stage. It is spring here: the season when April with his sweet showers or "shoures soote,/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote." Thus wrote Chaucer in his exquisite prologue to The Canterbury Tales. So, it's time to get frisky or, alternatively, set out on a pilgrimage and tell a bunch of yarns en route.

One of the winning aspects of the RSC's epic, two-part, six-hour dramatisation - which tackles every story in the collection - is that its attitude is appreciative, not reverential. Mike Poulton's adaptation is intelligent and lively, actually starting out in medieval English (slightly modernised) then slipping into our contemporary idiom, retaining the rhyme scheme and some lovely old words - not least "swyving" which is self-explanatory and features prominently in the Miller's and Reeve's bawdy tales. Frankly, even Chaucerian scholars are going to be grateful that Poulton wryly truncates the Monk's Tale, a desperately tedious list of tragic exempla.

Director Gregory Doran and his creative team are, often rather charmingly, having a laugh. His company canter around on hobby horses, sporting beautiful butterfly headdresses but also those comical hoods with long, floppy liripoops which make people look like turkeys. Indeed, led by Mark Hadfield's droll Chaucer, the cast raise an ironic eyebrow at their own childish pretending games. At other points, they offer more sophisticated shadow play and moments of splendid puppetry.

The Nun's Priest's Tale, starring a pontificating rooster, features a chorus line of sackcloth hens, singing and swaying to the beat. The laidback fox, biding its time, lies curled like a huge fur stole over an actor's shoulders. This dramatisation also brings out how comical Chaucer's use of classical learning can be, having a chicken quoting Cato - then checking the reference in a small book.

The ethically trickiest and, consequently, most interesting episode is the Prioress's Tale. This is a hateful xenophobic legend about an angelic Christian child murdered by Jews. Persuasively bringing out an obsessive note in the narrating, Paola Dionisotti's gaunt Prioress is a disturbing fanatic, a shade mad and witchy. The satanic Semites conjured up by her fevered imagination are pointedly dressed in what look like monks' cowls and grotesque hooked-nosed masks.

Dionisetti is far more sympathetic as the wise, ill-used crone in the Wife Of Bath's Tale, a social teaser about sexual equality versus dominance. Other company members doing fine work include Claire Benedict as a feisty Wife of Bath with a Caribbean lilt, and Dylan Charles who's an amusing, mincing, sneering Pardoner. However, truth be told, one tires of the puerile romps and the joint direction - by Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby - ends up looking baggy and a bit loose at the seams.

To 4 Feb then touring, 0870 609 1110

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