Wives may be merry and yet honest too

What: The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

When: 14th August 2018

This new production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is quite perplexing in places but I found it a whole lot more enjoyable than their current Romeo and Juliet. And I think audiences in general will concur.

Now many of the actors who were featured in Romeo and Juliet are found here also and in many ways the production is an equally uneasy fit for an orthodox reading of the play but there are some players (who weren’t part of the Montagues or Capulets) thrown in who make this all the more worthwhile than the night out you might tolerate at R & J.

First and foremost is the massive presence (in every sense of the word) of seasoned performer, David Troughton, as Sir John Falstaff, who handles this role with aplomb.

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His Falstaff is deluded as he needs to be and as wretched as he really his. He is full of hot air (as well as padding) and it is worth seeing this production to watch the masterclass that Troughton brings to it. The production has all kinds of odd moments (we will come to those in a moment) but his is a perfectly straightforward Falstaff.

There are, I believe, only three Shakespeare plays which mention their setting in the title and all three are comedies. There are many other in which the city or town or country is made self-evident in the text but only three that mention it on the poster outside of the building. These are the plays that bear the destinations of Windsor, Venice and Verona if I am right.

This did not stop the RSC setting “The Merchant of Venice” in Las Vegas a number of years ago (complete with an Elvis impersonator and a performance from Patrick Stewart that felt like he’d been left behind in Venice when the other members of the cast moved house) and now we have “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that has found that “the only way” to present this play “is” to pretend it belongs in “Essex”. Consequently, the laundry basket that is part of the original text is exchanged for a council wheelie-bin although the text is not changed from “carried” to “wheeled”. Mmm… And the fat woman of Brentford becomes the fat woman of Brentwood. Strange…

Thankfully, the actors playing Mistresses Page (Rebecca Lacey) and Ford (Beth Cordingly) are more than adept at rising above all the costumery and excess baggage charges.

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Others are not quite so equal to the challenge. Charlotte Josephine is a female Bardolph and her casting makes less sense than it did when she was attempting to make herself into Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. There the director made her casting about gender matters. Here it just seems confusing (no pun intended). Perhaps she just had down time between performances and Fiona Laird decided to find a role for her. She makes a decent fist of it, but she is not the Bardolph of my imagination. Less palatable are Afolabi Alli as a camp Pistol and Josh Finan as a gay Nym.

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The comedy hangs around in unusual territory. An added introduction with an animated Queen Elizabeth requesting that Shakespeare writes the play reminds one a little of Monty Python. The accent and French meanderings of Dr Caius (Jonathan Cullen) come straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo. The physical humour could come from anyone of a number of the later Carry On movies.

Speaking of Queen Elizabeth I, the Elizabethan baggage of the production makes for a quandary. The play costumery straddles 21st century reality show and Elizabethan England – sometimes in very imaginative ways. But the play is introduced, as I have said, by an animated Elizabeth and the final scenes which usually have Mistress Quickly disguised as a Fairy Queen, here have her as a town square monument commemorating the same Queen Elizabeth. Now, I have always thought in my own directing that the play we are watching is best presented as a “prequel” to the history plays which Falstaff and Mistress Quickly appear in. At least, this presents some continuity for the characters which is lost here.

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I am not a lot more comfortable with Ishia Bennison’s rendition of Mistress Quickly than I was with her take on Juliet’s nurse in the Romeo play.

Most everything else will do. The music (also by Fiona Laird) is not subtle but it is well-performed. The moving scenery is great. Karen Fishwick as Anne Page and Luke Newberry as Fenton are up to the task but do not clear the bar easily.

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So, a decidedly mixed night out. If you can overlook its shortcomings and want an evening of culture which is also a rollicking good laugh – and has David Troughton on fantastic form – then this one is for you.

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