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The Merry Wives of Windsor (Globe)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Christopher Luscombe’s production of Shakespeare’s examination of the middle classes proved to be a big success at the Globe in 2008. It therefore makes perfect sense to revive the play, it fitting in perfectly with the theme of Kings and Rogues – Falstaff, of course, being the Platonic ideal of rogues.

So, it's interesting to see whether the revival, with broadly the same cast can achieve the same effect. Perhaps it's my imagination but the comedy seems much more obvious this time round. The programme has an article about how television sitcoms owe a debt to this play and Luscombe seems to want to hammer the point home at every stage in the production.

The music is used differently too. Nigel Hess's score has the same sort of function that Ronnie Hazlehurst used to have for countless BBC television comedies by providing a sort of jaunty commentary to events.

So, Falstaff doesn't need to see Ford (disguised as Brooke) appearing, he says “here he comes now” on first hearing a jaunty theme. I don't recall the score being quite so dominant, two years ago. It's not all jauntiness though, Hess does produce a lovely setting of a love song for Fenton and Anne Page.

Christopher Benjamin's put-upon knight has just the right mixture of lechery and pathos - there seems to be more awareness of his foibles than in the previous production. Andrew Havill's splendid Ford, on the other hand, seems to be even more Basil Fawlty-like than before, almost contorting himself with fury at Falstaff’s machinations.  As the eponymous wives, Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward make an excellent double act, while Gareth Armstrong's Hugh Evans provides a droll commentary on events.

This is the perfect play for the Globe, the comedy can reach right out to the groundlings. I’m still not convinced about the way that Janet Bird’s set splits the audience in two. – and a sudden downpour must have made the walkway very slippery, full marks to the actors for keeping their feet.

This remains a very funny production if some of the power of Shakespeare's word-play has been sacrificed for some more physical comedy, but it's a surefire hit, one lapped up by the Globe audience.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from June 2008, and this production's original run at Shakespeare's Globe.

It’s hard to understand why it’s taken so long for the Globe to stage this, Shakespeare’s most immediately funny play. As the programme notes point out, in many ways this is the forerunner of the modern sit-com and as such should be an obvious crowd-pleaser.

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. He’s not helped by Janet Bird’s design, which includes a walkway that bisects the groundlings’ area. Not only does this mean that some members of the audience are, like tennis spectators, having to turn their heads during certain scenes, but also that some of the dialogue is lost in the general hubbub.

Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff savours the prose, relishing every phrase like it was vintage sack and speaking so clearly that not one word was inaudible, even in the Globe’s rather unforgiving environment. But while amusing, he didn’t quite have the timing to wrest every laugh from the part. For example, the line about mistaking his erection, normally guaranteed to bring the house down, passed by with just few titters.

Benjamin was not alone in misfiring lines; as Slender, Will Belchambers was equally guilty, many of his malapropisms being met by total silence. However, he struck the right note with his hesitant wooing of Anne Page.

There is a much better comic turn from Andrew Havill as the ever-jealous Frank Ford. Like the spiritual ancestor of Basil Fawlty, he got the balance of anger and indignation just right as he straddled the roles of plotter and plot victim. He includes some nice touches, making great use of the supporting pillars on the Globe stage, hiding by them while dancing at Falstaff’s discomfort in being pitched into the river.

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. There’s an excellent moment when the women pretend to belch to disguise the groans of Falstaff in the laundry basket - these are merry wives indeed. I also liked Gareth Armstrong’s nicely-played Hugh Evans and Philip Bird’s Dr Caius – but then, you can’t go far wrong with a comic foreigner - every sit-com needs one. And Nigel Hess’s incidental music perfectly complements the dialogue.

This is, overall, a very funny production – but then, this is a very funny play. The audience went home happy enough but my gut feeling is that once this settles down a bit, this production will be even funnier.

- Maxwell Cooter


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