RSC at the Barbican – The Merry Wives of Windsor:
The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed comedies and was my first viewing of this play. But even if I had seen it before, I would not have been prepared for the RSC’s wonderfully uplifting and hilarious production, directed by Fiona Laird. While the political class fought it out with one another in the outside world – the actor playing Dr Caius made an ad lib Brexit joke to loud applause – in the imaginary world, the audience was treated to a most welcome escape for a few hours.
The play is alleged to have been written at the request of Queen Elizabeth 1 who so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry lV that she requested a play focused on him in a romantic situation. In the RSC production, a prologue suggests that the Queen commands that the play be ready for a performance within two weeks. Whether or not this is true, it provided an amusing opening to the play, followed by a jaunty introduction to each character as they danced and shimmied across the stage. Introductions are no bad thing when it comes to the complexities of who is married to whom, who is deceiving whom, who works for whom and how it all fits together.
Sir John Falstaff, is the bon vivant pal of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry lV who leads the young prince astray much to the ire of the Court and his father, King Henry lV. He appears in the Merry Wives as a conniving character who hopes to feather his nest by seducing two women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, who hold the purse strings of their wealthy husbands. The women decide to take Falstaff on and turn the tables on him in a series of entertaining capers. At the same time, Mistress Page is trying to marry off her daughter, Anne Page, to one of three suitors each of whom is supported by different factions.
Unusually, Shakespeare positions the women as the protagonists in the play. The female characters were feisty and funny in equal measure. Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page were an energetic duo, plotting and scheming while making time for pedicures and primping. Anne Page (Karen Fishwick) pouted and preened with her coiffed locks and the little white dog that she carried under her arm. Those who are familiar with The Only Way Is Essex might enjoy the play even more. This is Windsor via Essex – accents, attitudes and apparel. The audience roared with laughter at certain references and gestures which rather went over my head.
The male characters were strong too with David Troughton as Sir John Falstaff leading the revelry with aplomb. He carried off his capers with delightful bonhomie and his outfits added to his ribald character.
The costumes by designer, Lez Brotherson, were absolutely fabulous from the bling of the women to the ruffs and breeches of the men. The sight of Falstaff in his tennis outfit will live long in the memory. Each costume added immeasurably to the comedic effect of the play.
The plot is one of light farce although there are a few more serious themes if you care to look – fidelity and jealousy for example. While such concerns are dealt with in other plays with depth and devastating consequences, in The Merry Wives of Windsor they get a light touch and are used for comic effect. Sexual innuendo is ever present and the play – in this production at least – was pantomime at its best. The production was a masterclass in physical comedy with the constantly ridiculous antics never descending into silliness but rather displaying skill and comic timing which was laugh out loud funny. At the end of the play, the audience joined in with clapping and whooping while the cast performed their final, high octane dance. It was hard to tell whether the actors or audience was having more fun.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is the third of the RSC’s winter season at the Barbican. In the run-up to Christmas, it is a great choice for a festive night out and a welcome tonic for the spirit.
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs until 5 January 2019 at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS
All photos were taken by Manuel Harlan.