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Review Round-up: Wives Very Merry at the Globe

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Twelve years after it opened, Shakespeare’s Globe presents its first production of the Bard’s most raucous comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer, as part of artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s “Totus Mondus” season at the open-air Bankside landmark.

The production – directed by Christopher Luscombe and designed by Janet Bird, who worked together on the Globe’s 2006 staging of The Comedy of Errors - opened on Wednesday (18 June 2008, previews from 8 June) and continues in rep until.

The fat knight Sir John Falstaff imagines that Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are both taken with him and so, attracted as much by their husbands’ money as their personal charms, he decides to woo them both. But the women are up to the old lecher’s tricks and turn the tables on him. Christopher Benjamin stars as Falstaff, with Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as his two paramours.

Critics warmly welcomed this “obvious crowd-pleaser” to the Globe, where most felt – particularly given the unique demands of the venue - it had found an ideal home thanks to Christopher Luscombe’s “sunny, funny and palpably affectionate”, Janet Bird’s “inventive” design, Christopher Benjamin’s “perfect” and “irrepressible” Falstaff, Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward’s “infectious” and “joyously played” Mistresses and, last but not least, the performances of an “exceptionally strong supporting company”. This is “merriness unbridled” raved one, while another declared it “the feelgood hit of the summer”.

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “It’s hard to understand why it’s taken so long for the Globe to stage this, Shakespeare’s most immediately funny play … Christopher Luscombe’s production, while not wholly satisfying, certainly brings out much of the comedy of Falstaff’s wooing of Alice Ford. But I couldn’t help feeling that while he was nearly there, the end result could have been much funnier … There is a much better comic turn from Andrew Havill as the ever-jealous Frank Ford. Like the spiritual ancestor of Basil Fawlty, he gets the balance of anger and indignation just right as he straddles the roles of plotter and victim … Havill is ably supported by Sarah Woodward as Alice Ford and Serena Evans as Meg Page, conniving happily in the twin deception of both Falstaff and Ford … This is, overall, a very funny production – but then, this is a very funny play. The first-night audience went home happy enough, but my gut feeling is that once this settles down a bit, this production will be even funnier.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “As this exuberant outing proves, the Globe provides an ideal environment for the piece … This revival is zestfully alert to how Merry Wives anticipates modern sitcom with its social climbing middle-classes, its very English belief that all foreigners are automatically idiotic and its knockabout farce involving a frantically suspicious husband who makes Basil Fawlty look about as manic as Desmond Lyman. The beauty of the production is that it manages to be high-spirited in this regard without being heavy-handed … The deliciously inventive comic business is a joy in itself but also reveals insights into character … Falstaff may be a diminished figure in Merry Wives, but Christopher Benjamin engagingly captures the irrepressible conceit that, even after a dunking in the Thames and a sound beating, makes him think he will be third time lucky. Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward are beautifully convincing as old friends and radiate infectious delight in their collaborative efforts to turn the tables on the fat knight … Janet Bird\'s striking, simple design sends a walkway through the audience and right round the stage.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Legend has it that Elizabeth I was so taken with Sir John Falstaff, the roistering fat knight of the Henry IV plays, that she commanded Shakespeare instantly to write another drama with him in it. Good Queen Bess herself would surely have beamed at this delightful take on that royal command script, quite the best and freshest work I\'ve seen at the Globe in several years. Christopher Luscombe\'s period-dress production, full of clever touches, is more fluid and flexible than many that come to staid, sticky ends in this notoriously difficult arena … Christopher Benjamin\'s lovable old rogue of a Falstaff, all exuberantly coloured clothing and huge belly, is up to his usual tricks ... He is run deliciously ragged by these mischievous minxes, joyously played by Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans … This is indisputably Shakespeare\'s jolliest comedy - and the only one without the slightest shadow of death lingering about it … Merriness unbridled.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “There is a parlour game to be played spotting the small-screen references in Christopher Luscombe’s entertaining production. Early on, one of Sir John Falstaff’s henchmen gives a Corporal Jones salute from Dad’s Army. The Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans sounds like a direct ancestor of Rob Brydon in Gavin and Stacey. And Andrew Havill’s strangulated performance as the jealous husband Ford, resorting to mad physical jerks when language deserts him, is an unashamed lift from Basil Fawlty … Designer Janet Bird has been inventive within her brief … As the fat knight, Christopher Benjamin is an amusingly woebegone lecher … As Mistress Page, Serena Evans is a shrill little bird but the kind that would stick its beak in your eye. Mistress Ford (Sarah Woodward) is at the other end of the vocal scale, with deep, lacrosse-stick tones. The hoot they have together is infectious. Evans silently cracking-up as she spins a yarn for the benefit of the eavesdropping Falstaff is a particular joy.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Christopher Luscombe, who once excelled as a Shakespearean comic actor himself, directs a sunny, funny and palpably affectionate production, cleverly designed by Janet Bird so that the timbered acting area extends into the pit, complete with dinky humpback bridges and the revelation of a delightful secret garden … Though the Falstaff of The Merry Wives … is a far less complex character than the one who appeared in the two parts of Henry IV, Christopher Benjamin plays him with rich, ripe panache … Though he\'s constantly humiliated, Benjamin\'s Falstaff miraculously retains his joie-de-vivre. In an exceptionally strong supporting company, Andrew Havill\'s chisel-faced Ford is a sublimely comic study of obsessive jealousy and tortured masochism, Sarah Woodward is a gruff, capable delight as his resilient wife, while William Belchambers is deliciously fatuous as that most diffident of lovers, Abraham Slender. This is one of the most enjoyable productions I have ever seen at the Globe and looks like the feelgood hit of the summer.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “Shakespearean humour can sometimes be excruciating … and the last stab at The Merry Wives of Windsor story a couple of years ago saw the RSC, Dame Judi Dench and Simon Callow sink with all hands lost. The open-topped Globe has far greater success with this old crowd pleaser, happily. It makes for an exceedingly jolly night out … Christopher Luscombe’s cast deliver a pacy evening, traditional yet inventive … Christopher Benjamin makes a perfect Falstaff, bulked up with a vast belly yet showing a trim pair of stockinged legs. Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward are well paired as Mistresses Page and Ford, but the real revelation is Andrew Havill as the ‘cuckold’ Frank Ford.”

    - by Terri Paddock

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