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The Canterbury Tales

Penguin Classics
Length: 16 hrs and 44 mins
Categories: Classics

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Publisher's Summary

Brought to you by Penguin. 

This Penguin Classic is performed by Lesley Manville (winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress and known for Phantom Thread and Mum), Derek Jacobi (winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor and known for Gladiator and Gosford Park), Michael Balogun (known for National Theatre Live: Macbeth), Jay Bernard (writer of Surge, artist, film programmer and activist), Seroca Davis (known for Prime Suspect and Doctor Who), Daniel Weyman (winner of Audiobook Narrator of the Year at the Audio Production Awards 2016 and known for Gentleman Jack and A Very English Scandal) and Roy McMillan (winner of an Earphone Award for narration on Conclave and award-winning producer). 

This definitive recording is translated by, and includes an Introduction by Nevill Coghill. 

In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer created one of the great touchstones of English literature, a masterly collection of chivalric romances, moral allegories and low farce. A story-telling competition between a group of pilgrims from all walks of life is the occasion for a series of tales that range from the Knight's account of courtly love and the ebullient Wife of Bath's Arthurian legend, to the ribald anecdotes of the Miller and the Cook.

©1951 Nevill Coghill & 2019 Nevill Coghill Ltd (Translation) (P)2019 Penguin Audio

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  • Enobarbus
  • 14-01-20

An Important Job Half Done.

An Important Job Half Done.

It is a national scandal that there is still no complete recording of our greatest, most vigorous and entertaining poem: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. So it's wonderful to have, at last, at least this version of Coghill's workaday modernisation. The 1950s "translation" is pretty accurate and fluent but misses so much of Chaucer's rich music, humour and verbal vitality that this recording feels like an important job half done. Chaucer really doesn't need to be "modernised". Nobody hearing the original would prefer this version.
That said, Jacobi, who gives us a superb Reeve’s Tale, Merchant’s Tale and Man of Law’s Tale, is worth the price of the whole thing. Why Penguin didn’t commission him to do the whole work is a mystery. We know how well he handles epic narrative from his solo recordings of the Iliad and Vergil. He knows the text inside out, and has the technique to convey every voice individually and excitingly. Above all, he relishes every nuance of the story telling and the rhythmic shape of every paragraph: does full justice to Chaucer’s masterly handling of the rhyming couplet, constantly varying the pace, tone and tempo. This is highly dramatic, persuasive reading of the highest calibre. It’s also very funny!

The other performances are little more and often less than adequate: good clear voices and, except in the Knight's Tale, largely free of inappropriate accents. It would be a very good idea to have a large cast rather than expect a handful of actors to voice 29 pilgrims if the cast were all as strong and familiar with the texts as Jacobi. But the woeful miscasting of this recording, as with a number of Audible productions, leaves a lot to be desired and is often bizarre.
For example, the boisterous, sexual dynamo who is the worldly-wise Wife of Bath sounds on this recording like a naive nun. She certainly doesn’t enjoy the bawdy! Prunella Scales made a superb recording of the tale in the original which you’d have thought the producer would have studied. Many of the other younger readers sound as if they are reading the texts for the first time and there is little understanding of Chaucer’s wonderful characterisation, dramatic shape and far too little variation of pace and tone: just mechanical, often unintelligent sight-reading. They make rhyming couplets sound perfunctory, like doggerel!
The whole thing gets off to a sorry start with, very oddly, Lesley Manville, a fine actress woefully miscast as the middle aged, ironic and slightly dotty Chaucer/Narrator/Harry Bailey. It just doesn’t work because she misses so much of the irony and bite, her light voice simply cannot characterise the sweep of humanity, overwhelmingly male, Chaucer presents us with. She sounds like a rather patronising Sunday school teacher reading unfamiliar material and her delivery is halting and laboured.The magnificent Knight’s Tale suffers from a narrator who struggles to articulate his words and who clearly has no understanding of the Gentil (aristocratic, slightly old-fashioned) Knight who is supposedly telling the story. It’s as if the parts have been allotted at random to a bunch of out of work actors who have had very little coaching in how to read verse and have never got to know the Canterbury Tales at school. The production is seriously under rehearsed. The Millers Tale again suffers from being bland and unaware. The reader has an excellent voice but he just doesn't understand the tale.

So a very mixed bag. : it's a worthwhile undertaking but poorly executed. Let's hope Audible will now commission a complete recording of the original text with Jacobi on his own or with a group of actors who know and relish what is still our most entertaining and greatest poetic achievement. The father of Shakespeare, the grandfather of us all.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars
  • DaveN...
  • 09-02-20

Unfortunately not worth the wait

I’ve always had a great deal of affection for the Penguin Classics series of books with their enlightening introductory notes and (mainly) splendid translations, so when I saw that Penguin had brought out an audiobook version of the Canterbury Tales I thought it was time to dive in. My expectation was that the audiobook performers would bring about the same level of illumination of the text as I expect from the printed books. Oh, how wrong I was. With the notable exception of Derek Jacobi (who does exceedingly well with three of the Tales) the performances are pedestrian, and in the case of the Knight’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, really rather dire. Penguin Classics seem to have come late to the audiobook business and appear in a frightful hurry to populate the catalogue with their output , but they have not done themselves any favours with this disappointing production. If you are looking for an audiobook of the Canterbury Tales, best look elsewhere.

1 person found this helpful