You could call The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare’s equivalent of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; take cameo characters from a tragedy and given them starring roles in a more light-hearted play. The rogue Falstaff and his gang of petty villains step out of the sombre courts of Henrys IV and V and into a light-hearted farce.
In his efforts to deceive the ‘merry wives’ and gain a fortune, Falstaff loses his companions, and meets his match in three women – Mistresses Ford, Page and Quickly – suffering mean physical indignities along the way. Meanwhile young Anne Page has to decide between three suitors, and a French Doctor and Welsh Reverend not only get laughed at because of their ‘silly’ accents but are tricked by the townspeople into making fools of themselves.
Added to this fast-paced romp are the tricks that the RSC have at their disposal. Beds, fully laden tables, and a telephone box shoot up from below stage while whole houses, rugby goalposts and a felled oak fly in from above. There is even a working car driven on and off, and the full stage depth and height conjure up a classy modern town house. Costuming is largely spot on - Halloween is referenced with some laugh out loud touches – but perhaps a rethink of the dowdy headscarf and blouse which Mistress Page had to endure for the second half when she started off so well in a Boden-esque homage.
Although there is some possibility to explore female emancipation and the lens through which men view women the play should be funny throughout and needs slick comedy timing and above all interesting business (that is, the non-spoken bits which can have an audience in stiches). Help would come from more variety in movement and expression – Alexander Gilbreath has a lovely bum but it there is more to sexual allure than constant wiggling, and Sylvestra Le Touzel does a superb strident but there is quite a lot of ‘overheard’ dialogue and more than shouting is required to keep our interest going in the two set piece deception scenes.
If this review is mentioning anything but performance then remember the old theatrical adage “if the audience notice it then there must be something wrong with the acting” and it is sadly tempting to get fixated on the peripheries of this production. Should it really matter that Mistress Ford’s bras (an unfeasible large collection) all appeared to be different sizes, that Falstaff’s padding could be seen to be that under his vest, that in modern setting (very precisely October 2012) Mistress Quickly would insist on curtseying, and a tatty Citroen 2CV the motor of choice for a rich Doctor - really? And perhaps, for the moment, any references to fat cigars clamped between the jaws of an unsavoury character should just be dropped.
There was sloppy characterisation too, feeble shorthand rather than relying on the text – Slender’s stutter to indicate wetness, Nym’s simmering violence undermined by playing him as stereotypically black ‘youff’ with a large gold chain, an ‘only way is Essex’-homage to indicate Mistress Ford is a game bird. The problem lay mainly with the direction which seemed to rely more on impressive technical staging and opportunities for cheap laughs rather than exploring what the text could offer and then really pulling out all the stops in the more farcical scenes.
And either the director or his cast hadn’t quite got to grips with where to be positioned on stage but from the side stalls quite a lot of the view gets blocked in several scenes. The cast also need to remember that there are paying punters in the circle and above who would like to be included in the impassioned monologues or comedy asides. At the end of the day Merry Wives isn’t a classic of the Shakespeare cannon but it is an entertaining night out and although there were no stand-out performances the ensemble did produce between them some funny moments.