The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff attempts to woo a pair of wives in the RSC's modernised production.

August 27, 2018
Shakespearean pantomime

When Arthur Conan Doyle did away with the detective that had made and, subsequently, dominated his career in The Final Problem, it would take eight years (and a huge public outcry) before the writer would undo (or retcon) this moment in The Hound of the Baskervilles. For Shakespeare and Falstaff, the death would last a far shorter time, only one or two years. From dying off-stage in Henry V to starring in his own farcical escapades in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the fate of Falstaff seems an early example of a character's popularity expanding far beyond what the writer could have imagined.

This production, a charmingly put-together summer romp, cheekily references this, as a projection of Queen Elizabeth decrees that Shakespeare is to bring Falstaff back. And The Merry Wives of Windsor duly does this, placing the rotund knight in the heart of Windsor as he attempts to woo two of the local wives. He is motivated by his impending poverty and his remarkable belief in himself. Catching wind of Falstaff's plan, the two wives set out to teach him a lesson, through a series of increasingly elaborate tricks.

In a strong ensemble it is the two wives of Windsor who stand out. Beth Cordingly (Mistress Ford) and Rebecca Lacey (Mistress Page) dominate the production, giving refreshingly rounded performances and satisfyingly hitting their comedic beats. I particularly enjoyed how Cordingly's Ford's entire persona changed dependent on who she was with and what her role was for them at that particularly moment. David Troughton continues a run of iconic Shakespeare roles at the RSC, and his Sir John Falstaff is a fun creation, even if there isn't much complexity to it. For a true masterclass in what Troughton can do as an actor, seek out The Levelling.

The rest of the company are an accomplished set, with the production benefiting greatly from the chemistry between the group. The physical comedy on stage, choreographed by Spymonkey's Toby Park, is exuberant and very enjoyable. There is even an attempt to turn this play into a more ensemble piece, with an opening that presents each character to us. But some characters do tend to get a bit lost in the mix, disappearing and reappearing dependent on proceedings.

What this production can't quite convince us of is the modern relevance of this most slight of Shakespeare's comedies. Yes, you could see this as a sexual predator receiving his much-justified comeuppances. But at the same time everything feels so heightened, played almost as broadly as a pantomime, that any feel of justified vengeance gets lost in the mix. And there's only so far a production can go when the ending remains the same, that Falstaff will not receive any real punishment for his actions.

If the play text feels particularly dated and out-of-step, the same cannot be said for the frankly marvellous craft on display. The stage is dominated by two hollowed-out houses, bedecked in neon lights, which rotate and open as needed. The costumes are a lush mix of Essex swagger and Elizabethan chic. The work of Lez Brotherston goes quite some distance in making this production stand out, and his design is big and bold, endearingly exaggerated and brimming with wit.

I'm not sure director Fiona Laird has found quite the right way to modernise The Merry Wives of Windsor. The attempts this production have made mean we have two marvellous performances, a fabulous design and an ending that, while true to the text, feels out-of-step with the modernity the production seeks. Still, the audience I was with lapped it up, so maybe I'm in the minority when I say that this show didn't quite work for me.

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