The Merry Wives
by William Shakespeare
Northern Broadsides / New Vic production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Thursday, 12th May 2016, 14.30
Brian Rutter as Falstaff
Adam Barlow as Corporal Nim / Fenton
Al Bollands as Sample
Ben Burman as Pistol / William
Andy Cryer as Doctor Caius, a Frenchman
Sarah Eve as Anne Page / Robin
John Gully as Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson
Becky Hindley as Mistress Ford
Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Page
Thomas Dyer Blake as Shallow, a Justice
Josh Moran as Bardolph/ Rugby
Roy North as Page
Helen Sheals as Mistress Quickly, Dr Caius’s housekeeper
Mark Stratton as Host of The Garter Inn
Jos Vantyler as Slender, Shallow’s rich relative
Andrew Vincent as Ford, a jealous husband
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey
We like going to theatres we haven’t visited before. Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, so is an airy mid-60s arts theatre with a proscenium stage, but loosely bordered. It’s similar to Salisbury or Poole in size, but with better restaurant and bar facilities than either.
Barry Rutter (Falstaff) and Becky Hindley (Mistress Ford)
On to The Merry Wives. They’ve dropped “Of Windsor” from the title, presumably because it’s not Northern. But no one drops “Of Verona” from the Two Gentlemen, or “of Venice” from The Merchant. Northern Broadsides? Northern over-sensitivity! What next? Two Gentlemen of Bridlington? The Merchant of Bradford? Timon of Accrington? Anyway, we saw it in Guildford, and Windsor’s definitely north of Guildford. This is Barry Rutter’s third bash at the play too, and it is done in Northern accents, with a 1920s setting.
The Northern accents are entirely vindicated. They reference the sit-com / farce elements of the play – any regional accent always helps comedy. It’s also sensibly consistent compared to the plethora of regional accents (do whatever comes naturally) in so many contemporary Shakespeare productions. It’s a coherent world. The addition of Funny Frenchman and Funny Welshman was always there. It helps.
Andy Cryer as Doctor Caius, a funny Frenchman
Northern Broadsides is a genuine company rather than a brand name covering dissimilar productions. Look at their 2015 production of King Lear, and note how many of the cast play in both. That gives an air of rep (which also exists in RSC seasons … but only for a season), which has advantages, in that people are used to working together, though it also gives disadvantages.
Barry Rutter with Northern Broadsides harks back to the 19th century Manager / Lead Actor / Director role, the Henry Irving position. Olivier did it. Branagh is reviving the role. Few can take the double role, which Rutter and Branagh can, of course, but there are limitations. Being close up, it shows when the lead actor / director is talking, and the listeners are indicating their attentive listening just a tad too hard, while being set statically in listening positions. If you’re going to direct from mid stage, you really need a strong assistant director standing out front. With the complexities of a modern production, you don’t see the RSC, National or Globe trying to do it.
L to R: Mistress Ford, Mistress Page, Falstaff as the fat woman of Ilkely and the jealous Ford.
This is a heavily cut version and fluid and fast moving in its scene transferences. The clocks in the foyer put it at 2 hours 40 minutes with interval, though we were out at 2 hours 30 minutes. That’s beneficial, though the theme about a visiting German duke (I thought it was Count) got so lost that the quick, late reference to the Host of the Garter Inn being cheated by the Germans came from nowhere. That is the point of contrast with the RSC. In the RSC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (LINKED), the Garter Inn was transformed into a beer cellar with barmaids in dirndls – a whole elaborate set just for the aside about the visit. The division between a medium sized touring company with minimal sets and the RSC is most marked by comparing the two productions. The RSC had a Citroen 2 CV on stage for Doctor Caius, billiard table, a rugby goal, an elaborate two storey house interior. This had white drapes, two cane chairs and a round wooden seat. Oh, they did have three funny bicycles at the end, including a tandem for Dr Caius and a small Penny Farthing for Slender. By no means a great, or even a good set, but it worked for the tour. As with King Lear in 2015, they are playing both proscenium and in-the-round theatres. It reminded me of football commentators saying that sometimes it was good to stop watching the Premier League and find the real essence of football in the lower divisions, or out in the provincial theatres on a restricted budget.
Andrew Vincent as Ford, the jealous husband. He is disguised here as “Brooks”. Falstaff right.
Sport is a running theme. The RSC had Page and Ford as rugger buddies and the Host as a referee. This picks up in the same style. Here Page and Ford are in cricket flannels with cricket pullovers and striped blazers. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford’s double act was accentuated by having them in matching 1920s pleated tennis skirts, and they first appear straight from the court with rackets, as do Page and Ford later. Swords get replaced by sporting implements … Caius has a practice javelin, and other weapons are a hockey stick and a croquet mallet. Ford, while posing as Brooks, switches to a golf short-sleeve jumper and golf clubs. At the end, when Falstaff is dressed up as Herne the Hunter, he uses cricket pads on his chest, and his horns are hockey and lacrosse sticks.
L to R Adam Barlow (Nim), Josh Moran (Bardolph), Ben Burman (Pistol)
The 1920s look had Bardolph, Pistol and Nim in working man’s suits with flat caps, looking very much like the gang in Peaky Blinders (set in 1919-1920 Birmingham) – a good reference for them. Ben Burman’s Pistol really channelled the Peaky Blinders effect … Burman was outstanding as Pistol, had a fine short cameo as the schoolboy William, and was also funny as a servant trying to shift the laundry basket full of Falstaff. All three parts worked well as a trio.
The play has three parts which are perfect for character actresses: Mistress Ford, Mistress Page and Dr Caius’s gossipy housekeeper Mistress Quickly. They were all played large, and all the better for it. Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley were perfect as the two plotting merry wives. Helen Sheals in pinny and headscarf was an early Coronation Street Mistress Quickly. We know that the great actor managers were as likely to cast themselves as Master Ford rather than Falstaff, and it is a fine role, with the added dimension of having to pretend to be Brooks to fool Falstaff into a joint plot to cuckold Ford, i.e. himself. Lots of chances to shine and Roy North did.
Rightly, reviews picked out the hamper scene, where Mistress Page and Mistress Ford conceal Falstaff below dirty laundry to hide him from the angry and jealous Master Ford. In the second seduction scene, where Falstaff has to disguise himself as the Fat Witch of Ilkely (a Yorkshire version of Shakespeare’s The Witch of Brentford), Ford furiously throws laundry items into the audience. A younger audience would have thrown them back.
L to R: Slender (Jos Vantyler) with Page and Justice Shallow
We picked out Slender (Jos Vantyler) for our “Man of The Match” award), in that he managed to convey languidness, stupidity, ambiguous sexuality and comedy at the droop of an eyelid. Very funny. As was Dr Caius (Andy Cryer). This has to be played over the top as a pantomime Frenchman, and he excelled. Every Gallic shrug and expression was there.
Falstaff as Herne The Hunter
Barry Rutter looks the part of Falstaff. He has played it many times. He’s clearly comfortable in the role, though there was nothing new about it. Still very clear, very funny. I liked the way they did the Herne the Hunter scene, with everyone in the cast who didn’t have a speaking role dressed up as girls. Much easier than twelve kids from the local dancing school!
The Faeries in the Forest
In all the comments, remember that this was the feared matinee audience from hell, a quarter to a third full, and almost all elderly. Seconds before the start, we moved forward to the empty Row B, driven forward by snotting and coughing next to us, plus the discordant buzzing of two sets of hearing aids in close proximity. We chose the two seats behind empty seats in Row A, thinking also it made it look a bit fuller for the cast … like those on stage, we work on our visible enthusiastic and attentive listening. It would hopefully sail on far better on a busy Friday night. Full marks for playing throughout with verve and gusto to this matinee audience. It must be depressing for younger cast members, and matinees of Shakespeare are usually OK because there’s a school party or three to enliven responses, but not in Guildford. Maybe it’s too close to that ever earlier exam season. Maybe the schools chose an evening. Maybe it’s just that it’s a highly unlikely set book, which is a pity. As a play it has “the common touch” i.e. a broad audience.
Music is a question. After the first half, with one unaccompanied song snippet, we wondered why a Musical Director was needed at all. The music is kept right to the end, with Shallow on double bass, and others taking turns on guitar and snare drum. Fenton plays banjo. They play well. The ending is a marvellous large all-cast Charleston (except for the live music). As they have four people who can play, we wondered why the first half was totally music free. A lost opportunity.
As before with Northern Broadsides, Mike Poulton’s programme notes with character notes rather than a synopsis, work very well indeed. It’s an excellent, advert-free programme too.
OTHER MERRY WIVES ON THIS BLOG:
BARRY RUTTER, and many of the cast appear in:
King Lear- Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides tour, directed by Jonathan Miller, Bath Theatre Royal