The Merry Wives of Windsor
There are several quite different ways of going about mounting this play. One extreme is to highlight all the darker edges: the cruelty to Falstaff; the scheming malevolence of women; generational conflict; the subjugation of young people by parents; male power; satire of the rising Elizabethan middle class; subduing the old order. At the other is a light hearted romp, with farcical elements.
Director Fiona Laird chooses the latter in a very funny and delightful comedy. In order to gain some contemporary resonances she uses the Essex cliché, choosing the Old Lady of Brentwood (rather than Shakespeare’s Brentford) in order the make the audience think about The Only Way is Essex. It works beautifully, the mood and genre established right at the start by a messenger announcing that Queen Elizabeth wants a new play with Falstaff in it and wants it quickly.
There is a lot of light hearted music, some of it country and a long dumb show dance which introduces the characters. Falstaff’s arrival is heralded by cacophonous music Liz Brotherston’s costumes are wonderful, combining modern dress, tastlessness and Elizabethan ruffs. There is lovely detail such as Slender’s chavvy rings and Falstaff’s codpiece. There are some clever and witty jokes. The statement that there are ‘some simples in my closet’ is made hilariously literal because Simple is hiding in the closet. Dr Caius’s franglais is a joy throughout, with some Brexit allusions and jokes. Ford’s disguise as Brook is great with plastic nose and coat while he still wears the same posh M and S carpet slippers that he wears as Ford. I guess he knew that Falstaff never looks at anyone’s feet! The director also has fun with Nym, Pistol and Bardolph, the latter played by Charlotte Josephine who is also splendid as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Nym (Josh Finan) is used as the boy who dresses up to masquerade as Anne at the end, giving rise to a lovely joke as Caius (Jonathan Cullan) realised ‘it’s a Nym’ (it’s an him’). Nima Taleghani has very little to do as Robin but executes an audience focussing role splendidly in several scenes where he has no lines as well as being very welcome eye candy. Nym and Pistol (Afolabi Alli) act as the servants who manipulate the laundry basket (here transmogrified into a wheelie bin) with delightful cod Slavic (Polish?). Fenton is short sighted and accident prone, falling over frequently when he isn’t wearing his glasses. Sir Hugh’s Welshness is highlighted by a Welsh choir. The Essex girls display themselves on sunbeds which Falstaff attempts to hide under. Mistress Page displays Carry On style Barbara Windsor (get the joke?) tits. There is an absurd remote control golf buggy. Slapstick and high farce and well handled for Falstaff’s escape.
David Troughton is close to perfection as Falstaff. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor play Falstaff before when I haven’t been drawn to the farcical nature of the fatty prosthetic padding. Not so here. I could have been deceived into thinking that Falstaff was grossly fat.
Laird just gets rid of the Herne’s Oak stuff and sets the final scene in the town square presided over by a statue of Queen Elizabeth with a Spanish carnival like atmosphere. I always find the Herne the Hunter stuff irritating as well as barely comprehensible, despite my work on provenance and footnotes and Laird obliterates the problem so easily.
It’s all great fun.
I only had one disappointment. Shakespeare’s text is striking in its use of prose except for Mistress Anne and Fenton. Their parts were cut and I could not hear any verse. I ended up caring only for what happened to Falstaff (in keeping with the way the play began and with what Laird was doing) but I missed the extra layer of aural stimulation and seriousness that Shakespeare creates.