FOR plenty of adults of a certain age the very mention of Geoffrey Chaucer brings stark memories of many trying hours spent in stinky classrooms deciphering a curious bygone language.
To renegade acting posse The Pantaloons the medieval writer – and more specifically The Canterbury Tales – represented a golden opportunity to create another off-the-wall slice of outdoor theatre.
And during the August bank holiday weekend the open-air company will perform in Sheffield Botanical Gardens Chaucer’s most famous work as it’s never been seen before.
“Chaucer, much like Shakespeare, is often studied at school and can be perceived as being very dull, but they are both very much engrained in British society,” says original cast member Caitlin Storey, who also doubles as producer, tour booker, costume designer, press officer and tea lady.
“We aim to change these perceptions. Actually, once you get past the Middle English – which we spent a whole month translating to contemporary speak – the stories are fantastic... magic, majesty, life and death... and of course, hanky panky.”
The Pantaloons’ previous pilgrimages include hits with The Taming Of The Shrew in 2009, Romeo And Juliet in 2010 and last year’s touring successes Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth.
In what they believe could be a theatrical first, the company is performing every single one of the 23 completed Canterbury Tales.
And that means a cast of just six actors playing more than 70 characters.
“I play the Wife of Bath, who is very cheeky, bawdy and larger than life – quite literally in a giant fat suit,” says Caitlin.
“I also play the Nun’s Priest, who is a bit like Noel Coward, with a raised eyebrow and pipe. I also love the Squire as he is just so enthusiastic and closes the show with his scene-stealing improvised musical tale.”
As if tackling so many characters wasn’t enough of a challenge, The Pantaloons will perform every story in a different theatrical style.
Hence, audiences on August 26 and 27 can expect pantomime, puppetry, masks, musicals, mime, farce, reality television, horror, opera – even Shakespeare gets a look-in.
Needless to say, this is far from stuffy theatre and, says Caitlin, a long way from being out-dated Medieval misery.
“The things that were interesting 700 years ago are still interesting today and funny; talking chickens, knights fighting for their dream girl, pokers up bottoms... all standard stuff! Human nature and what makes us laugh has not really changed much.
“And we want to make theatre accessible to everyone. Not everyone wants the highbrow stuff, but not everyone wants panto.
“We set out to entertain with heart, so there is something for everyone... especially in this show. We have Shakespeare, opera, Edgar Allen Poe, panto, barbershop, impro, farce, mime, puppetry via a limerick and a rap battle.
People from all walks of life and age enjoy what we do – and that is good enough for us.”
FOR those needing a refresher – or who have tried to forget Chaucer’s famous brow-furrowing output – the play follows a group of pilgrims who decide to hold a story-telling contest on the road from Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Beckett in Canterbury.
The group comprises people from various aspects of medieval life and sees a Knight, a Miller, a Monk, a Prioress, a Shipman and the rather insatiable Wife of Bath, all thrown together for a feast of curious tales.
The Pantaloons have sought to unlock some of the humanity and humour for modern audiences and forged a Chaucer we can cheer, not consider a chore. Mark Hayward, co-producer and co-author, was at the heard of the translating process. “It’s all about being faithful to the original text while making it relevant to a modern audience,” he says.
“It’s a tricky line to walk, but as we were translating we realised that the key things were to keep it accessible and keep it funny.
“There are several tales that are like mini-plays in themselves; famous ones like The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale deserve a proper showing. Other stories have been condensed into sketches, songs or even limericks.
While Chaucer’s original could get quite rude, this show promises plenty of bawdy fun but in the shape of a family-friendly adaptation suitable for all ages.
The Botanical Gardens will host a medieval market beforehand where the audience can interact with the characters, buy their wares and even grab a kiss off the Wife of Bath.
The Pantaloons have received international acclaim for their annual ‘Shakespeare-with-a-twist’ productions but are happy to be taking a break from the Bard.
Caitlin, for one, is glad she can step back into the world of Waitrose and Google.
“We were sitting in the oldest pub in England in Nottingham last week and we were discussing how nice it would be to live in medieval times... lots of ale, no fast food, a simpler way of life,” she concludes. “Then we remembered about the lack of health care and hygiene...”
The Canterbury Tales will be performed from 7pm both nights when audience members are welcome to take along their own feast and flagons of mead.
Tickets for shows – which will take place “in all weathers bar a full-blown tempest” can be booked at www.thepantaloons.co.uk