What is about the post-war decade that fascinates directors of this play? This is the third version that I've seen set in this period and there is nothing in the text that strikes me that it is a good fit. For a start, the swordfight between Caius and Sir Hugh is hard to explain and not many citizens in the 50s would talk about fairies.
It's true that Falstaff and his followers have come home from the war with little to do but lounge about and drink too much - but the same could be said about the 20s and I've yet to see a jazz age version of the play with Anne as a flapper and Fenton as a lounge lizard.
But whatever period the play is set in, there is a simple precept to follow: it must be funny. Rachel Kavanaugh's production fails to follow that simple rule. I've seldom heard so little laughter in a production of this play, particularly the first half which was received in near stony silence.
Part of the problem is with Richard Cordery's Falstaff. His name is a by-word for gluttony and lechery, this Falstaff seems to be interested in neither. When he calls for a quart of sack, the landlord brings him a bottle which he drinks daintily from the glass. While he is certainly well-upholstered, he's more like an overweight chartered accountant, propping up the rotary club bar while bemoaning the exigencies of a Stafford Cripps budget.
But he's not alone. There is also a dismally dull Hugh Evans from Michael Gardiner. One really cannot imagine him joining in the fun with the fairies. And as Dr Caius, Greg Hicks frantically overacts as if desperately trying to draw laughs from a flagging production. The fantastically dull set from Peter Mackintosh doesn't really help matters either.
It's the wives who provide some light relief especially Lucy Tregear's bright, sardonic Meg Page, but there's some solid work from Claire Carrie as Alice Ford and Alison Fiske as Mistress Quickly as well. The husbands do some good work too. Simon Coates has just the right touch of bourgeois respectability as George Page and Tom Mannion doesn't overplay the jealousy as Frank Ford.
It's hard to mangle this play but the looks on the faces of the audience said it all: this really wasn't a fun night. The last time the RSC was in London was for the fantastic Jacobethan season, let's hope that this is not a sign of things to come.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from the original production in Stratford, 5 November 2003.
Largely dismissed by contemporary critics as a "tiresome exercise" and "horrible", the reputation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, has fallen low since it was written, so tradition has it, at the behest of Elizabeth I, eager to see more of Falstaff, the dissolute knight of Henry IV.
True, the plot is slight, the quality of wit much reduced. But, if unloved, the play itself is not unlovely and, here, has the benefit of a first-rate production by rising directorial star Rachel Kavanaugh (winner of a Whatsonstage.com Award for Love's Labours Lost at the Open Air last year).
The relocation of the bard's tale to 1940s, post-war Britain is thoughtful, pointing up the social changes and anxiety experienced by both societies, while bringing a loosening of class and gender restrictions, and a determination to seize whatever pleasures were available.
As the play opens in middle-class suburbia, evoked by mock-Tudor elevations, mothers take their children to school, husbands set off for the office, a cheery milkman does his daily rounds, and autumn leaves fall on a spectacle of everyday life in 'Olde England.'
Down on his luck, Falstaff (Richard Cordery) plans to restore his fortunes by seducing Alice Ford (Claire Carrie), the wife of one of Windsor's wealthy citizens, with a love letter, sending an identical one for good measure to Meg Page (Lucy Tregear), also married. Unfortunately for him, the two are close friends and plot revenge by subjecting him to a series of humiliations. Hearing of Falstaff's designs, George Page (the excellent Simon Coates) is driven to a furious jealousy and determines to catch his wife 'in flagrante delicto.' Meanwhile, in a sub-plot, three suitors vie for the hands of his daughter, Anne (Hannah Young) whose parents have their own ideas about whom she should marry.
Kavanaugh's production gets off to a faltering start but soon builds up a head of steam. Cordery is superb as Falstaff, as is Alison Fiske as Mistress Quickly, and Greg Hicks gives a fine comic performance as the French physician, Dr Caius. Plaudits, too, to Terry Davies for an excellent musical score. A hit, a palpable hit.
- Pete Wood (reviewed at Stratford's Swan Theatre)