The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play by William Shakespeare to have a local, contemporary setting and, legend has it, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned it on short notice to be performed in celebration of the Knights of the Garter. This is the story that Fiona Laird’s production follows, setting the scene with a voice over of Shakespeare receiving a letter from the Queen containing his commission. In a peculiar homage to Terry Gilliam’s famous cartoon work for the comedy stylings of Monty Python, the Queen’s head is projected onto the stage to read her own letter and prompt the penning of the play. Perhaps the whole production is intended to be a celebration of the various permutations of classic British comedy. Toby Park (Managing Artistic Director of Spymonkey, a theatre company renowned for its use of physical comedy) is the physical comedy director for Merry Wives and his handiwork is clear to see. There are extended slapstick routines, complete with ridiculous sound effects, and the performance starts by introducing the characters in the style of the opening credits to a cheesy sitcom. There are also visual gags in abundance, with characters that continue to fall over (until they go to Specsavers and acquire some eyewear). It is almost as if Laird’s production is trying to compensate for the obscurity of some of Shakespeare’s wordplay with classic comedy techniques the audience are bound to appreciate.
“A highly enjoyable and visually spectacular production”
This is a production all about anachronism. The original concept of removing Falstaff from his late fourteenth/early fifteenth-century context and placing him in Elizabethan London is mirrored in the set, costume, language and characterisation of Laird’s Merry Wives. This is the most impressive aspect of the show: modern Essex and Elizabethan Windsor collide to create a miraculously cohesive and beautifully comic aesthetic designed by Lez Brotherston. The set is possibly the most stunning I have seen on the Royal Shakespeare stage. The skeletons of two traditional Tudor timber-framed houses sit on separate revolves and are set against a beautiful projected sky. The Elizabethan buildings nestle comfortably amongst the no parking signs, alehouse license and other modern trappings. Even more impressive are the costumes which combine breeches with bomber jackets, a pin-striped suit with puffling pants (to use Ben Elton’s coinage) and corsets with leggings. Modern jackets are tailored to resemble Elizabethan doublets and Falstaff’s limp codpiece could easily be the star of the first half, always preceding him onto the stage. The cast is undoubtedly strong and appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. A delightful smorgasbord of characters grace the stage, although there appears to be more variety in the male characters than the female. David Troughton’s Falstaff is exactly as lascivious, sly and rotund as you would expect and Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly work brilliantly together as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, the Windsor wives who plot to disgrace Sir John Falstaff. Jonathan Cullen’s French Doctor was undoubtedly hilarious – reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau of The Pink Panther with an over the top accent and slightly mincing gait. David Acton’s Welsh parson, on the other hand, was only conspicuously Welsh when his nationality was mentioned in the text. Although Merry Wives is a highly enjoyable and visually spectacular production, I was left smiling in bewilderment, rather perplexed about the purpose of the entire show. Several things still puzzle me. In Shakespeare’s only English play, featuring several prominent foreign characters who are mocked for their abuse of the English language, why mention Brexit but then say nothing about it? Why include an entire comic sequence in which the wives cannot understand the jokes of two handymen who speak in a foreign tongue, but then make no further reference to it? These nods towards the country’s current struggle with national identity and relationships with the rest of the world are left unfortunately conclusion-less.
“A bewildering barrage of utter absurdity”
A tiny statue of Elizabeth I appears upstage at some point during the first half, as though watching from the back. An interesting idea that neatly continues the opening framing narrative, reminding the audience of the supposedly rushed writing of the script. The throne is then enlarged and brought centre stage for Mistress Quickly to take the role of Elizabeth the First as the Queen of the Spirits that torment Falstaff. Why? I am not entirely sure. Finally, the character of Bardolph (in this production played as female by Charlotte Josephine) undergoes a curious transformation. Once she has been procured to work as the barmaid for The Garter she slowly changes her clothes, from her jeans and leather jacket to a tiny leopard skin shirt, tight leather skirt and then a sleek wig and lipstick. In fact, she appears to change character completely, with no explanation. Perhaps she is conforming to local ideals of femininity; if so, nobody seems to notice. Is this production a proud and patriotic homage to the country’s comedy greats? Or is it an example of British self-deprecating humour, recognising our own idiocy and ridiculousness? I don’t rightly know, but it is great fun to watch all the same. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a bewildering barrage of utter absurdity, but perhaps that’s what we find funny?