Brighton Fringe 2013
Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale performed as a modern day morality play through a mixture of narration and physical theatre in the intimate setting of a small church.
With a mixture of medieval and modern period settings, By Moonlight re-enact Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale through a combination of narration and physical theatre.
The Pardoner, a man who takes payment for forgiveness of sins, begins by explaining how he dupes people into giving him money. Despite the obvious hypocrisy, he then tells a story to illustrate what happens to those who are guilty of the sin of greed.
In the story three men live a debauched lifestyle until their friend dies and they decide find Death to kill him in revenge. Instead of finding Death they find a large quantity of gold coins, but in their greed they plot to murder each other for the money and all end up dead.
The performance by By Moonlight took place in The Burrow, a small chapel with a large fireplace and the audience sitting very close to the performers around the edge of the room.
The Pardoner introduced the tale directly, reading aloud the prologue to Chaucer’s tale, while the tale itself was performed by three actors almost wordlessly through mime, props and song.
The Pardoner was very good, both smugly self-righteous and slightly creepy, and her costume (he was played by a woman) was just right – a medieval smock and a lank blonde hair with a bald patch, as described in Chaucer.
The other three were in torn off brown shirts that looked a little like monks habits, but shorter. This would have been quite effective apart from the fact that one had modern shorts hanging down below the bottom of his shirt and the other two looked like they might have nothing on underneath their very short tunics, which was quite offputting at such close range.
This medieval set was accompanied by an odd collection of modern props – wigs, women’s clothes and shoes, table tennis bats, cans of beer and even a pizza, which they handed round the audience – and the only stage set was a clothes airer covered with items of clothing. The airer didn’t seem to serve a great deal of purpose, and given the loveliness of the venue, it really needed no dressing and would have been better without the set.
There was excellent use of music, with background music from the guitarist as the audience entered, medieval music for the Pardoner and a variety of songs and tunes during the acting of the story, sometimes sung by the guitarist and sometimes by the whole cast. Particularly amusing scene setting came in the form of the Dallas theme tune to indicate that the three men were rich and The Lion Sleeps Tonight to show they were big game hunting.
There were moments of laugh out loud humour in the acting of the tale, particularly when the three men were trying on woman’s clothing and fake breasts and wandering around in high heels, but it didn’t connect well with the medieval background story.
In general the mix of medieval and modern didn’t work well and it wasn’t clear why the modern physical theatre and props were being used or what they brought to the piece. The lack of narration throughout most of it also made it difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with the tale. It would be better to go with either medieval or modern, not a mixture of the two.
The size of the space made the physical theatre a bit awkward, at times difficult to watch what was happening across the stage area when you were so close to it, at others just uncomfortable with the actors performing right in the faces of the front row.
There was also a bit of audience interaction and one audience member was pulled out to play the part of the old man who directs the three to Death. It was clear that no-one in the audience had expected this to be an interactive performance and weren’t keen to be picked on, which made it awkward, and the power of that part was lost by having someone stumbling reluctantly over reading the script. This could perhaps have better been taken by the guitarist, who was the only one of the cast not to have a role in the play.
The play would have worked better in its current location with more of the Pardoner and a simpler theatrical performance. The chapel lent itself to something small – acoustic music, storytelling or puppets – and physical theatre was too much in such a small space. It really needed to be a much more straightforward telling of the tale.
Alternatively the modern take could work well in a larger theatre, reinterpreting the tale completely into a physical theatre performance and making the Pardoner as well as his tale contemporary. The mixture of the two didn’t quite work though, and seemed rather too disjointed.