William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor sees the return of one of his most famous creations, Sir John Falstaff (Desmond Barrit) as he attempts to woo Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel). However, little does he know that the two women are as thick as thieves and hatch their own plot to avenge themselves on Falstaff, whilst Mistress Ford gets the chance to prove herself to her jealous husband (John Ramm). Meanwhile, Mistress Page's daughter, the lovely Anne (Naomi Sheldon) finds herself with three suitors, Master Slender (Callum Finlay), the choice of her father (Martin Hyder), Dr Caius (Bart Soroczyinski), her mother's choice and the outcast-yet-obviously-the-right-one choice, Master Fenton (Paapa Essiedu). In the midst of all these goings-on is Mistress Quickly (Anita Dobson), the only person who seems to have any clue as to what is actually happening.
The RSC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is easily one of the most accessible performances of Shakespeare I've seen recently. Having no real knowledge of the plot, other than Falstaff's appearance, I had no idea of what to expect, nor of how everything was going to unfold. Well, that's not strictly true, it is a Shakespearian comedy after all. They only ever end one way; all of the fools get their comeuppance, the right people marry each other and everyone ends up happily ever after. The real skill in this production then, was making it the journey to that inevitable ending a really good one, full of pratfalls, witty one-liners and some truly hysterical visual jokes.
While Shakespeare's plays are littered with well-written puns and comic lines, the real skill in directing one of his comedies lies in finding the moments in between the lines that yield the most comic potential. Phillip Breen's direction at the textual level was superb throughout, identifying these gaps and allowing his actors to fill them with some truly hilarious moments, particularly in the seduction scenes between Barrit and Gilbreath. The ensemble cast all rose to the challenge and performed excellently, sharing a great chemistry that only added to the hilarity of the situations in which the characters found themselves. Anita Dobson was an excellent Mistress Quickly, capturing the busy-body side to the character that makes her so funny. Whilst I would argue that Gilbreath's Mistress Ford and Le Touzel's Mistress Page stole the show, there was no bad performance in there which made it all the more entertaining.
The necessity of establishing all of the characters with little or no introduction from the Bard himself is often one of the downfalls of the lesser known plays whereas characters like Hamlet or Macbeth are easily identifiable. The Merry Wives of Windsor does have an ace up its sleeve with the inclusion of the instantly-recognisable Falstaff but nevertheless, the performance got off to a slow start, not helped by the constant scenery changes. The modern-day setting was an interesting choice, allowing for a Merry Desperate Housewives of Windsor interpretation of the play, all middle-class dinner parties and tweed. Yet, unlike say the military setting of Ian McKellan's Richard III, this modernisation didn't really add anything to the play, it just made it easier for underwear-related jokes to be made a little more obviously.
Another downside to the updated setting was the decision to have a huge amount of scenery for each scene. With each new scene requiring several mechanical stage manoeuvres, including a bed appearing from underneath the floor, unnecessary rugby posts descending from the roof and a very unstable house frontispiece for the back of the stage, I found that every scene change took me straight out of the action. Granted, various scenes did not follow into each other but rather chopped and changed between the different subplots, but I found it very difficult to get back into a scene once I had been sat watching the scenery shift for over a minute. I was also sat in the upper circle which meant I could see the majority of the under-stage mechanics and it became very distracting. Shakespearian works never need to be over-produced and this production should have had a little more faith in its audience's imagination.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was very enjoyable, a funny, well-acted piece of entertainment that for the most part, honoured its source material and it would have been far better if the staging decisions had been stripped back to allow the exceptional cast to work their magic uncluttered and moving-scenery free.
*** (and a half for the most inventive use of melons in a Shakespearian production)
You can find out more information on The Merry Wives of Windsor here.
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