Phillip Breen’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a romping farce, very good to look at. Trap doors are freely used for the appearance of cast members and props and there are various delights for the eye such asÂ an old CitroenÂ 2CV and rugby posts. Why Page should play rugby and the Host should be a referee I have no idea. I imagine the rugby posts were on stage because one of the characters is called Jack Rugby, although I have a sneaking suspicion that the RSC hadn’t yet shown how high the new fly tower is and therefore wanted to invent something to show it off. Â The inside of the Garter Inn has a quasi-realistic bar and a (presumably heavily reincforced) billiard table which Falstaff dances on at one point. The ear is entertained, too, with Dr Caius’s oft repeated ‘by gar’ sounding like ‘bugger’ and Ford chasing round his house looking for Falstaff shouting ‘buck’ over and over again. Once the audience cottoned on they obediently laughed every time the word or phrase was said, clearly enjoying a little gratuitous scatology. Much is made of the malapropisms which litter the play and again the audience laughed at some of the most obvious of these. LittleÂ is made of the filthiest jokes and nothing of the more subtle ones.
The chase scenes inside Ford’s house were slick and funny and timing was generally good. This production is about the two wives tricking Falstaff and about Ford’s irrational and hyberbolically expressed jealousy. Nan’s marriage was downplayed. Slender’s functionÂ is to do silly walks and Caius’s to say ‘bugger’ tiresomely often. Fenton is feeble. No one cares who marries Nan. Indeed none of the play’sÂ more serious issuesÂ are highlighted.
There is some excellent acting. Desmond Barrit is wonderful as Falstaff, Anita Dobson lively and skilful as Mistress Quickly and Sylvestra le Touzel and Alexandra Gilbreath both splendid as Mrs Page and Mrs Ford. Scenes involving these characters always held my attention. The children are all convincing, with David George as William Page and Leon Finnan as Robin and Bede particularly enjoyable to watch.
I heard some of what David Charles as Sir Hugh Evans said and a tiny bit of what Bart David Soroczynski as Dr Caius said. It was good that what I missed didn’t amount to very much.
Sylvestra le Touzel said in an interview in the programme that the production was set in Windsor in 2012. I didn’t get this. It seemed more like the 1970s to me in terms of style, materials, fittings and clothes.
Not everything worked for me. I didn’t understand who bought the underage Nan Page’s cigarettes for her and I certainly didn’t get the impression that Fenton was of too high a social class for her. I didn’t think either of them knew what they were doing in the play. Perhaps Phillip Breen was just not interested in them. I wasn’t. But I missed their verse which was just thrown away.
What Shakespeare was on when he wrote Act VÂ I cannot imagine. It makes some sense for AnneÂ Page to beÂ the Fairy Queen; it makes none at all to me for Mistress QuicklyÂ to take that role. All I could think was that Breen wanted Anita Dobson to have more to do and that he wanted to marginalise Anne Page.
This production is good fun. If you like farce you will love it. I have to confess that I don’t and I didn’t. Most audience members were delighted by it.