Chaucer Remixed: a review of @PatienceAgbabi’s ‘Telling Tales’ poetry slam

To the backdrop of hip-hop beats experience Chaucer remixed to the cultures and lives of Deptford, taking us from modern day inner London life to the 14th Century and around the world to Nigeria and elsewhere.

Entering the large domed performance space, the drumbeats permeated around the dimly lit room, creating a relaxed ambience as the audience settled at their tables, the sound of chatter softly filling the space. With the DJ Mantis offering a suitable musical contribution to each development of the evening, the night of poetry slam with a twist got into swing.

The Albany in Deptford was hosting the event Telling Tales, a retelling of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer for the 21st Century. A new poetry book by Patience Agbabi, it is an inspired remix of the Middle-English classic, taking us from The Miller’s Tale to the Wife of Bath.

Organised by Apples and Snakes, an organisation for performance poetry in England, the show is taking a tour around the UK over the next 6 months, from Gravesend to its finale on October 29 at the Canterbury Festival.

The poetry slam consists of a traditional format with the poets battling it out between one another – but with a twist. Normally consisting of poets performing their own work, in this case they were taking on a poem and character from the book by Agbabi, and competing for the best interpretation and performance; which they were free to create as they saw fit.

The poems themselves were an eclectic mix that took us from Nigeria to 14th Century ‘olde’ English and modern day inner city London, with a touch of hip-hop smoothed over the top.

The six performances were completely original and took us through the themes of love, relationships, marriage, infidelity, each embedded in different cultures and accents. The haunting, magnetic yet darkly humorous performance of ‘The Crow’, exploring the broken heart of a man over his wife’s affair leading him to tragic conclusions, was in stark contrast to the cheeky city café chef with his Italian stallion partner in crime.

The performance of ‘The Debutante’, the sardonic wealth obsessed lady who would do anything for diamonds was delivered marvellously by Claudia Shipman, while The Parson with his dramatic, gospel-like performance left the evening with the warning of ‘marrying pride with lust’ leading to disaster, guiding us instead that ‘tempting power of prayer… helps us fight back.’

A wholly interactive show, the judging was based on the scorecards of the four ‘expert’ judges who were able to navigate the demands of their interpretations and those of the audience. Each holding a scorecard at the end of a performance, the audience showed their approval or disapproval of the given scores. The high energy audience feedback was maintained by the enthusiastic and rousing performance of host and poet Harry Bells Bailey. It was, he assured us, a democratically decided judging. The criteria were quality of the poem, the audience response, and the performance itself.

Some performances were undoubtedly more colourful and better prepared, however the all round participation of the audience and the interesting, eclectic and cheeky poetry itself more than compensated throughout.

As the final scores were tallied up we were treated to an impromptu performance of an ode to Deptford by a local poet, examining its past and transformation through gentrification in a rather amusing way. The audience showed their approval for the judges’ high scores all-round and the winners. They will remain a secret as you should see and decide for yourself!

You can find out more about the ‘Telling Tales’ tour here.

review by Stephanie Marina Harvey

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