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Zadie Smith’s First Play Brings Chaucer to Her Beloved Northwest London

Smith translated Chaucer’s Middle English into a vernacular she has called “North Weezian,” and her “Wife of Willesden” is Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s who adorns herself in fake gold chains, wears fake Jimmy Choo heels and speaks in a mixture of London slang and patois. Her tale takes the form of Jamaican folklore, set in the 18th century. Like her progenitor, Alvita has also been married five times and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

In a back and forth with her religious Auntie P about sex and religion, Alvita tells her: “It’s true Paul said / He didn’t want us having sex for fun — / But it weren’t like: commandment number one. / Auntie, what you call laws I call advice.”

Referring to her character, Clare Perkins, who plays Alvita, said, “She’s striving for personal happiness.”

“She’s always reinventing herself and she’s always right there, in the middle of her life,” Perkins added.

The transformation of Alyson of Bath into Alvita of Northwest London was not, for Smith, a significant leap. In her introduction to the script, which was published by Penguin this month, she wrote “Alyson’s voice — brash, honest, cheeky, salacious, outrageous, unapologetic — is one I’ve heard and loved all my life: in the flats, at school, in the playgrounds of my childhood and then the pubs of my maturity.”

Smith doesn’t seem to overthink the prominence of Northwest London in her work. “If you grew up close to the streets, it just means something to you,” Smith said. “It was never an intention when I started, but there’s just something about the neighborhood. It really entertains me.”

While the play is in one sense a celebration of the setting, for Rubasingham, it’s also about acknowledging the hardships that the area has endured during the pandemic.

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