The Merry Wives of Windsor
Royal Shakespeare Company,
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
6th December 2012, matinee
Directed by Phillip Breen
Desmond Barrit – Sir John Falstaff
David Charles – Sir Hugh Evans
Anita Dobson – Mistress Quickly
Paapa Essiedu – Fenton
Calum Finlay – Slender
Alexandra Gilbreath – Mistress Ford
Stephen Harper – Bardolph
Martin Hyder – George Page
Julia Innocenti – Neighbour
Ansu Kabia – Nym
Sylvestra Le Touzel – Mistress Page
Carla Mendonça – Neighbour
Thomas Pickles – Simple
John Ramm – Frank Ford
Naomi Sheldon – Anne Page
Ged Simmons – Pistol/John
Bart David Soroczynski – Dr Caius
David Sterne – Shallow
Simeon Truby – Host Of The Garter Inn
Obioma Ugoala – Rugby/Robert
In another review, I wrote that in the early 60s, if my parents had been confronted by a quiz question saying name a Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Windsor would have been the first response. Just before going to see this we mentioned it to a neighbour (early seventies) who said ‘My favourite Shakespeare play! Not that I’ve seen one for forty years …’ I saw a TV production many years ago, and have never seen it on stage before. The clue to this comes in the RSC 2012 edition of the play. I’ve never bought their current edition before, as I have always had a single play edition already. With this one, I didn’t, and I’ve made a mental note to always buy them at the RSC in future, for the production history at the back.
Simon Callow is interviewed about playing Falstaff in the 2006-2007 musical version and says:
Having heard all my lives that Merry Wives was a rather shabby spin-off, and having repeated that opinion in two little books I wrote about Henry IV … I was immensely excited to discover that the character (of Falstaff) is absolutely himself, simply in reduced circumstances … (it) is fully worthy of the other plays.
Callow must have been studying around the same time as me, because the shabby spin-off mantra was one I’d taken as read myself. Spin-offs … commercial cash-ins like Knots Landing on Dallas, or Going Straight to Porridge, or In Sickness and in Health to Till Death Us Do Part. The story, or possibly myth, was that Queen Elizabeth herself wanted a sequel to Henry IV with ‘Falstaff in love.’
It is Shakespeare’s only comedy set in England, and there is a note that Windsor was the first night’s stop between London and Stratford. I found that geographically odd. A horseman would surely have chosen the more direct line followed by the M40 than trailing along the Thames then up to Oxford (or M4/A34 for any sales reps reading this). More likely is the explanation that it was performed at court, and that Shakespeare’s company did odd forays out to Windsor Castle … Eton and Maidenhead get mentioned, so he knew the area.
Back to Simon Callow’s comment. The other play that got mild put-downs in my student days was The Comedy of Errors (early, too derivative of Plautus’s original, immature, too farcical). I’ve seen The Comedy of Errors many times over twenty years. It works superbly every single time. The Merry Wives has been produced less often in recent years, but both plays have farce and sit-com elements, especially when placed in a modern setting, and this production is similar in many ways to the recent National Theatre Comedy of Errors (with Lenny Henry): appropriate and funny use of a contemporary setting, rapidly changing and elaborate set, no expense spared, both even have a real car on stage, and a famous TV actor (Anita Dobson) in a major role. Hopefully this production will revive the play in the public mind, so that we start to get another wave of productions. It’s intrinsically a far better play than those spin-off comments suggested.
A modern setting, after seeing two Mark Rylance / Globe strict discipline authentic practices, men in doublet and hose, productions in a row, had impact again. The impact of a modern setting gets dissipated when every production has it. A modern setting is the default choice for The Merry Wives of Windsor in recent years, though the 1950s has been the previous choice. This is definitely 2012.
L toR: Bardolph, Falstaff, Mistress Ford, Master Page
After two all-male Shakespeare plays, another refreshing thing was a play with three strong female roles with strong female actors in them. Anita Dobson was Mistress Quickly, very much the doctor’s receptionist to the French Dr Caius, rather than the ‘housekeeper’ in the text. She plays the bustling busybody and multiple matchmaker. The last time I saw her onstage was pantomime, but her list of “serious” credits is long.
Anita Dobson as Mistress Quickly
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, Falstaff behind curtain upstairs
Alexandra Gilbraith was Mistress Ford, and Sylvestra le Tuozel was Mistress Page. These two are a double act, and the costume had it perfectly. Mistress Page had sensible shoes, a sensible skirt, headscarf and was every bit the county set mum. You could see her taking her daughters to the pony club in the 4WD. Mistress Ford had the tight trousers (there was a lot of bum shaking), plenty of cleavage and gold stilettos. When you’re seated in Row A at the side of the thrust stage in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, you really notice the shoes as they’re right at your eye line. You really notice the bums too, because from the side they so often obscure the action. In Mistress Ford’s case, this was no hardship. You also notice the fine attention to detail in the costume … when they were out of doors in Hunter wellies, the mud had been artfully applied.
Master Ford (John Ramm) and Master Page (Martin Hyder)
The hunter wellies appear in the rugby pitch scene. Master Ford first appears in mud-spattered rugby gear, setting the testosterone charged rugger-bugger character. Master Page has got a tracksuit on, and when the pub landlord turns up, he’s the referee. Ford was the chosen part of 19th century actor managers, so they rightly thought it the best role in the play, and John Ramm does the role full justice. The rugby start rang bells for me … John Ramm looked just like a guy I used to run into at the gym. When he wasn’t wearing a rugby shirt, he was carrying a squash racket and seething with competiveness. It’s such a good role because as well as the jealous husband, he has to pretend to be Brook, the man soliciting Falstaff to seduce Mistress Ford, giving him a change of character while still revealing his inner-Ford. The wig which slipped was a great moment.
Desmond Barrit is Falstaff. Falstaff has to be big and loud. This one is gargantuan and stentorian. The fat suit is immense. Callow has described how hard it was to play in a fat suit in 2006, but the suit gives tremendous comedy as when this Falstaff has to hide behind the arras, or here, net curtain, and to get there he has to waddle and wheeze very slowly indeed up a long flight of stairs. Barrit brings out the vanity, the fallen pride, with humour and a large touch of the poignancy which it would be so easy to bluster out of the character.
The sitcom element that’s usually noted is the funny Frenchman and funny Welshman. Funny foreigners appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays. The Manuel-effect has been working for five hundred years. Bart David Soroczynski looks so Gallic as Dr Caius that if he walked into a bar in Paris, they’d say ‘Who’s the Frenchman?’ And there is a direct line from pronouncing ‘third’ as ‘turd’ which leads to ‘Allo ‘Allo. Similarly, the prurient but pious Welshman is a stock character that has maintained itself through the centuries. The Latin lesson continues the spate of pronunciation jokes.
The scene that’s hard to integrate is the forest scene where Falstff is persuaded to dress as Herne The Hunter, and gets attacked and pinched and prodded by schoolboys disguised as fairies. The device of linking this to a Halloween party in a modern setting was introduced some years back and has stayed, but in spite of the pumpkin in the window of the Page’s house, the Halloween link is pretty weak here, mainly because the costumes worn by Sir Hugh and the boys are so elaborate … too elaborate perhaps.
The set was a knockout from start to finish. The changes were fluid, and great use was made of the lift to bring sets into view … the doctor’s reception area, Falstaff’s bed. Creating a rugby pitch with full perspective was done in seconds. The modern steel and glass house for the Fords was dropped in just as fast. Then there was the huge fallen oak for Herne’s oak scene, Dr Caius’s Citroen 2CV for the duel scene, the bar and billiard table for the Garter Inn thrusting itself onto the thrust stage. A chippie provincial part of me sometimes questioned why the signpost had to appear expensively and electronically, or why a phone box should appear and disappear from below on a lift, with a muffled conversation to cover a scene change, or why the car was there at all. As with the NT’s Comedy of Errors, a car moving around on stage reminds me irrevocably of pantomime and the Broker’s Men. Another expensive set change was when the Garter Inn was transformed into a German Theme Night based on a minor aside about the imminent arrival of a German duke. It wasn’t worth it, though both bargirls in dirndles were very funny in silent bit parts, and a known character (the landlord) in lederhosen is always good for a laugh. You have to think that shaving a few per cent off the set budget would finance an entire set elsewhere. On the other hand, I’m less chippie about hugely expensive Stratford productions than London ones. London gets 95% of expensive productions, while Stratford is central, close to other heavily-populated regions and is a kind of pilgrimage too.
We had a shared comment afterwards. In the programme, the characters are Meg Page, George Page, Frank Ford, Alice Ford, fitting the 2012 setting. In the text and on stage, they are Mistress Page, Master Page and so on. The Welsh parson is Sir Hugh Evans. Were parsons knights? It sounds wrong. Whatever, the Mistresses, Masters and Sir Hughs all sound jarring. It’s anachronistic. (And I don’t care what the First Folio says, Welsh “Hughs” spell it “Huw.”) As so much of the play is prose, it would be tempting to eliminate some of them. Dare I say replace them even? Master to Mister? Mistress to Mrs? Sir Hugh to Hugh, or Reverend? It’s very small. I’d definitely do it. In a similar way, the women curtsey a lot. That’s not in the text, and looks slightly off too.
Overall, this is why you go to Stratford … a great production, acting of the highest order in every part, wonderful sets and costumes.
I’m running this section in reviews now whenever it comes up. If you can list ‘lead chaperone’ (for the kids) in the credits, why can they not acknowledge the music? There were three clever uses of modern songs. When Falstaff appears, rolled on recumbent on the billiard table at The Garter Inn, the yobbish Bardolph, Pistol and Nym are playing air guitars on their billiard cues to a rocked-up version of … Candle in the Wind. Rocking up Sir Elton’s soft and sad British best-selling single ever (as it was in the Lady Diana funeral version) is hilarious in itself. Then Anita Dobson as the receptionist sings a few lines of Lee Dorsey’s Workin’ In The Coal Mine at her desk.
Mistress Ford and Falstaff get it on
The really big one though is the best scene in the play, where Mistress Ford leads Falstaff on to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. Marvin Gaye’s music, lyrics and performance must fill three or four minutes of the play’s running time, with not a word of William’s intervening. While Mistress Ford’s sexy dancing is fun, the gargantuan Falstaff’s sexy dance is one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year, funny because it is executed weightily, but daintily and well. And Marvin Gaye’s perfectly appropriate music isn’t worth a credit? I do understand the argument … the songs are supposed to be a surprise, but four minutes of lyrics is a significant contribution to the overall event. The box of Cadburys Roses he gives her is a masterly touch, as is her scoffing one of the chocs while her husband rants and raves.
Falstaff needs the cigar. Blowing smoke in Mistress Ford’s face while trying to seduce her works. In the bar scene, Bardolph, Pistol and Nym with cigarettes make sense. One very good use of smoking is when Ann Page comes to meet Fenton. She slips out of the mock-Tudor house, looks back, and lights a cigarette … a teenager slipping off for a surreptitious puff. It sets her disobedience well, and as soon as she lights it, she sees Fenton and puts it out. Not gratuitous.
We keep trying different seats. Row A at the side of the thrust stage is not good. The seats are painfully low, and there is no foot space under a row in front. You see a lot of feet close-up and a lot of performances are given with a view of the actor’s back. The initial honeymoon with the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre fades faster every time. For all its virtues, that thrust stage compromises too many seats.
The Merry Wives, Northern Broadside on tour, 2016