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Michael Coveney: Falstaff and fanfares at Stratford

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There's always something odd about going to Stratford-upon-Avon as winter draws on - and, indeed, with winter drawers on - but while it's not one of the great productions, there's a twinkle and a freshness about the new Merry Wives of Windsor that cheers like a cup of warm sack, or a succulent side of beef.

And it's high time the RSC renewed its nerve with this play, the first British sitcom, since the disaster of Greg Doran's musical version six years ago in which Simon Callow stepped in as a late replacement for Des Barrit as Falstaff. Well, Des is back in the role, and relishing every minute of it. He played Falstaff in the Michael Attenborough RSC productions of the Henry IV plays, but I think Sir John in Merry Wives suits him better. He's more easily jovial and suburban than he is soldierly or downright nasty.

And you could tell from the curtain calls that the audience has fallen in love with him. Whether he's actually fallen in love with the merry wives is another matter; there's something routine about his campaign of accost, as if it's a mere diversion from his other bar stool duties in the Garter Inn.

Maybe he just realises early on that he's out of his league, for Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel are a formidable pair of suburban housewives, rapacious, cheeky and sexually underwhelmed by the other chaps on the well-appointed housing estate.

Merry Wives is the only English scenario in the Bard outside of the histories, so it's only right that it will play in repertoire over the Christmas season with a fascinating international season that Michael Boyd has arranged in the Swan. Between this week and next March, audiences can sample three classics from China, Russia and Germany, all of them with Shakespearean overtones and references and all of them, on paper at least, exactly the sort of epic classical theatre the RSC should be undertaking.

The first, opening next week, is The Orphan of Zhao, sometimes known as the Chinese Hamlet, in which the eponymous Oliver Twist discovers that his adoptive father is the warrior who wiped out his own clan in a massacre.

Master Fenton has been explaining his translation in the Guardian - no, not Master Fenton in The Merry Wives, but Master James Fenton, the former Sunday Times drama critic and Oxford Professor of Poetry, who has been recalled to the RSC by the canny Greg Doran.

Re-called, you cry? Well, many moons ago, when strapped in critical harness, the poet Fenton hob-nobbed with John Caird, then planning his assault on Les Miserables with Trevor Nunn in the back rooms of the Dirty Duck. This was to be (as it eventually proved) the RSC sequel to the same team's Nicholas Nickleby, with Fenton replacing David Edgar in the dramaturgical mix.

Alas, Fenton's lyrics were rejected by the directorate and his rhymes were replaced with the more banal (if infinitely more singable) lines of Herbie Kretzmer. The rest, as they say, is history. But Fenton had signed a royalty contract and he remains, to this day, the wealthiest un-sung lyricist in the annals of musical theatre.

So, in some ways, his new text is both pay-back and collect, as he renews his RSC connection and finds his work welcome there. A similar link is re-forged between the RSC and another poet, Adrian Mitchell, on Boyd's farewell with Boris Godunov.

The show is creepily advertised as a new translation; Mitchell died almost four years ago. But Boris was the last piece of work he was engaged on, and perhaps the debt goes the other way this time, as the RSC was widely judged to have bodged his contribution to the legendary 1964 Marat/Sade they revived in the Swan at the end of last season.

Whatever the outcome, it's surely nothing but good news to have these two marvellous, very different, poets back in the heart of the RSC. And wild man playwright Mark Ravenhill chips in with his own new text of Brecht's Galileo in the new year, Ian McDiarmid following in the considerable recent footsteps of Michael Gambon and Richard Griffiths in this great role.

And no critic will have anything more analytical or stringent to say than Fenton on the subject of Ravenhill's text: he's something of an expert on Brecht, whom he doesn't much like, but he's studied him closely, speaks fluent German and is intrigued by the subject matter of Galileo. How do I know? He wrote about the Gambon version in the Sunday Times.

This was shortly before he left for pastures new, a departure acclaimed at the time by Alan Bennett as a red letter day in the history of dramatic criticism. Which proves that he must have been doing something right; it's quite an achievement to have narked Bennett. Normally, he doesn't give a toss what the critics say, good or bad.

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