The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – review

Shakespeare’s comedy is the next production for Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey’s inaugural season

Samantha Spiro, John Hodgkinson, Siubhan Harrison, © RSC, photo by Manuel Harlan
Samantha Spiro, John Hodgkinson, Siubhan Harrison, © RSC, photo by Manuel Harlan

You might think that suburbia, with its twitching curtains, middle-class golf clubs and drinks trays festooned with G and Ts, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Post-war, perhaps, reaching its apogee in the 1970s, when it was ripe for ribbing in the shape of TV comedies such as The Good Life or The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

As is so often the case, Shakespeare proves that he got there first. In Blanche McIntyre’s frenetic interpretation, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the great-grandmother of all English sitcoms, replete with sexual innuendoes, obfuscating misunderstandings and plenty of shouting and running about. It’s even got a Welsh vicar and a comedy Frenchman to complete the set of unfashionably stereotypical characters.

To be fair to Shakespeare, he’d never seen Basil Fawlty in full flow, or watched Alf Garnett ripping into foreigners, so he can probably be excused some of the worst excesses of political incorrectness – not to mention the fact that he was writing in 1597. For the RSC to be exploiting them to the full for quick laughs feels a little more uncomfortable in 2024.

That said, the comedy is highly accomplished, with the knockabout routines meticulously drilled and executed under the auspices of movement director Ingrid Mackinnon. The interwoven threads of a potentially cuckolded husband, an eligible daughter in the market for matrimony and the lascivious lustings of one Sir John Falstaff are capably handled, and Robert Innes Hopkins has designed a set and costumes that feel so authentic that you expect to see Paul Eddington bumbling through a doorway at any moment.

Composer Tim Sutton adds some superbly realistic sitcom theme tunes to break up the madcap scenes, delivered by a wonderful band of eight musicians, and McIntyre never lets the pace flag for a moment. Among her gigantic cast there are particularly strong performances from Samantha Spiro as the scheming Mistress Page, Richard Goulding doing comic outrage and touching pathos with equal aplomb as Master Ford, and Patrick Walshe McBride as a delightfully wimpy suitor.

Holding the whole thing together is John Hodgkinson’s bombastic Falstaff, a tour de force of creepy lechery that leaves you wanting a shower to wash off his smarm. Whether covered in mud from a dunking in the Thames or tottering in heels disguised as the Wise Woman of Brentford, he’s clearly loving every moment of his over-the-top performance, and his exuberance is infectious, winning laughs and applause at numerous moments through the proceedings.

While the humour could best be described as broad, the comedy firmly of the slapstick variety, the line from 1597 to the heyday of the British sitcom is clearly and persuasively drawn, the characters foreshadowing their televisual counterparts, the archetypes already established nearly 400 years ahead of their time. Like so many of those well-loved programmes, with their floral-print housewives and Pringle-sweatered husbands, it’s lightweight fun without too much of a message. In these argumentative times of culture wars and stroppy social media, maybe there’s something to be said for a simpler way of doing comedy.