The Canterbury Tales, Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Presenting Chaucer without the Chaucerian voice is bit like trying to perform Mozart without the music - which is why the recent BBC series of updated Canterbury Tales felt like an ingenious way of missing the main point. The RSC demonstrate the best way of communicating this work to a modern audience in their new, wickedly entertaining and vividly versatile stage version, which is set in-period and performed in two parts (each lasting three hours and largely self-contained) in the Swan.

If you don't know your "swyve" from your "swink", don't worry - you will by the end, and not just because there's a positive orgy of "swyving" throughout. Mike Poulton's extremely adept and faithful adaptation manages to make the text accessible (pruning the more impenetrable vocabulary, or jokily explaining words on the hoof), while preserving and savouring the sly, sardonic wink of Chaucer's irony; the forth- right, iambic beat of his pentameters; and a tone that has no difficulty mixing smut and high seriousness.

There's nothing remotely antiquarian, though, about the exercise. The Chaucerian spirit is happy to accommodate the introduction of deadpan double entendres with a modern ring, as when the lascivious Friar tells his cuckolded victim to "Kiss your sweet wife and give her one from me".

It makes perfect comic sense to turn Mark Hadfield's secretive, scribbling little Chaucer into a strutting white rapper for the duration of his tale, as it brings out his medieval Emineminence on the rhyming storyteller front.

Likewise, the droll, laid-back ease with which Claire Benedict's lovely Wife of Bath recalls the copious pleasures of the bedroom is here given a fresh contemporary inflection by her easy-going West Indian lilt.

There's drama within the stories and, of course, between them. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the production - directed with huge flair by Greg Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby - come when discord erupts amongst the pilgrims whom we see trotting on hobby-horses toward Canterbury.

There's Joshua Richards' furious, flame-faced Summoner who barges into the Friar's tale and vows vengeance for its slander of his profession. There's Nick Barber's posh chump of a Squire whose cack-handed efforts to get his story started are terminally stymied by snide interruptions. There's amusing tension between the Wife of Bath and Paolo Dionisotti's superb Prioress, who looks permanently on the point of fainting with piety.

The stories themselves include bawdy farces (one of them involving a fart-fest which rivals that produced by the beans in Blazing Saddles), sea-tossed romances, a weird (and joltingly anti-Semitic) miracle fable and (best of all) tales that searchingly question the true meaning of "gentilesse".

Played by a crack cast on a stage covered with springy green turf, the productions create an extraordinary variety of moods as they encompass everything from the knockabout to the numinous.

A battery of theatrical techniques (hilarious puppetry for the Chauntecleer story; eerily eloquent shadow-play; a miniature opera) is deployed with a terrific sureness of touch.

Chaucer's characters never arrive in Canterbury, but Poulton's do, in a show that ends with a fervid hymn in a candle-lit cathedral. Well worth the pilgrimage to Stratford - or to any of the places on the production's subsequent tour.

To 4 February (0870 609 1110)

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