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The Adaptation by Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo

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The play adaptation of Chaucer Miller´s Tale resonates with present-day Nigerian life with its drama, energy, religious and colonial legacy. Remaining true to the original text, the characters and the thematic order of the tale is a primary concern to the adaptation, which is carefully balanced with social commentary about contemporary Nigerian society and the use of Pidgin English. The real importance of the play however, is in its universal message of the fragility of the human emotions and the endearing spirit of fear, love, betrayal, and revenge, incessant need for gossip and hope.

Adapting The Miller´s Tale because of it´s universal appeal to the human foible means that it could reach a new audience, not just the academics elites, schools and universities, but the ordinary people who just want a good story.

By employing the African folk tradition of story telling through the use of music, drums and gossip made it easier to convey the spontaneity and energy that typify African drama. Hence, part 1 of the play opens with singing. Part two begins with the drunken Miller drumming and performing with his dance troupe before narrating his tale and closes with his troupe in part three. The show is strewn mainly with original songs based on Chaucer´s text and irritatingly delivered by Abusolon, the wannabe lover/modern day stalker.

The character of Rabiu and Julie, although mentioned by Chaucer (Gille/Robyn), are fleshed out and their primarily role is gossip. They are two loyal servants thrown together doing a job they hate. Through their banter, we get to know about the other characters and events. Between them they generate some linguistic humour. For example, Rabiu who has been turned into a houseboy instead of continuing with his education, loves to read in his spare time to improve his chances in life, and likes to show off his learning to Julie by quoting Chaucer and translating it into Pidgin and Queen´s English. Julie, uneducated is utterly confused, and believes Rabiu needs his head testing when she mistakenly thinks, he is speaking a new language ‘Wazobia’ and believes that when he says, ‘Chaucer’, he means ‘chase her’, Madam! Her response is:

Chaser! Did you say chase her? You mean, you Rabiu, want to chase my Madam? You want to die? Chineke (shouts God in Igbo language.) You want our Master to throw you into that hot fire like that crazy boy who carried that wahala ring in that film? Em, what is the name again? Yes! ‘Lord of the Ring’. Abeg speak sense…

The use of black out during the show indicates the reality of the epileptic situation of the shortage of power supply in modern day Nigeria and the issue of security and crime. The tale begins with the Carpenter complaining about the heat and lack of electricity. The misdirected kiss from Alice and Nikori being ‘scalded in the towte’ by Abusolon takes place in the dark. The play ends with a gossip scene, with the gossipers shinning torchlights on the injured Carpenter. The gossipers, includes the market women and area boys. The latter´s primarily motive is to loot and strip the injured Carpenter off his shoes, watch, mobile and money during the mayhem.

The play provides a reason for Nikori´s hate for the Carpenter, apart from desiring his wife: Nikori is thrown out of university and is unable to pay his rent. He spends much time in his room, pretending to study; giving the impression that he is still attending university and tries to avoid the Carpenter (in much the same way as Raskolnikov in Dosoevsky Crime and Punishment). He develops a passionate dislike for the wealthy Carpenter who enjoys boasting and squandering money on his flirtatious wife. By playing on the Carpenter´s superstitious mind, he is able to revenge him and seduce his wife. There is also an insinuation from Rabiu about Nikori’s possible link as a student to cult practice, which is not uncommon practice at some of the university.

Nigeria as a nation is made up of many tribes and I try to reflect this reality in the various characters. For example, Abusolon´s character is from the North of Nigeria who has moved to Ibadan in the West of Nigeria to start a new life. As a refugee, he is particularly sensitive because of the massacre experience of his family and village in the North where traumatic killings have taken place and still happening. Hence, security is one of the most challenging issues for the country with the rise of Boko Haram and other terrorists groups. His dream is to move abroad to the UK or US, where he believes all his problems will be solved. In the meantime, he falls in love with Alice, who taunts and rejects his love and adds to his torment. Nikori is from the same Urhobo tribe as the Carpenter that is why he is partial and trusts him. ‘Julie you too like money’ is a stereotypical reference to Julie´s Igbo tribe, who are known to be industrious and Alice´s love of dressing and partying is reference to her Yoruba tribe´s uwambe ‘good time’ associations. Rabiu is from Akwa Ibom, a tribe known for their domestic hard work and loyalty. Both Miller and his archrival Reeve do not miss the opportunity to mock each other’s tribe.

Translating from the poetic source material to the stage was particularly challenging in the areas of authenticity, finding parallel characters to Chaucer’s characters and the issue of language:

Carrying a hot bar (as in Chaucer’s original text) across a certain distance without it getting cold invites disbelief. This is addressed by replacing physical heat with the heat of hot pepper, which Abusolon purchases and rob on the bar he obtains from his friend, on his way to revenge Alice. The screams for water by Alice and Nikori and the Carpenter’s wake from his blissful sleep on hearing the screams means the desired effect of burning sensation, needing water for relief is achieved.

Finding parallel Nigerian characters was a challenge. Eventually Chaucer’s Knight became the Ambassadorial elderly statesman’s figure of Kofi Annan, a weary unimpressed Professor replaced Chaucer and an astute businessman became the host/chairman. Matching names and only introducing characters at the point Chaucer introduces them in the text was demanding. To get around this, Abusolon’s friend Bros G/Gbenga, (Geveys in Chaucer) the agent that advises him about how best to woo Alice in the Nigeran adaptation, is only physically introduced at the end (as in Chaucer) even though he is referred to via mobile conversations with Abusolon earlier on in the script.

Trying to adapt as well as translate the Chaucer text into modern day Nigerian culture that switches between Nigerian Pidgin and English was equally taxing. The Miller´s Tale: ‘Wahala Dey O!’ compares present day Nigeria with Chaucer´s time. Pidgin English is a vernacular language spoken all over Nigeria and to a large extent frowned upon by the elites, just as English was in Chaucer´s time. It is a developing language with many regional versions, and as such is not static and has no official dictionary. Both Nigerian Pidgin and Chaucer English have much in common in terms of loaded imageries, naughtiness and loose grammar. Ultimately, both are infectiously entertaining and have a ‘cool factor’ that any language needs to survive. Trying to capture this rich linguistic mood in the script means some people might struggle with the Pidgin language.