Brighton Year-Round 2021
Oh! it was good to be back!
Back in St Ann’s Wells Gardens, for the opening event of One Fell Swoop’s Shakespeare season. Like last year, the Company are performing six of The Bard’s plays over six weeks, in the beautiful open-air surroundings of the Sensory Garden. This weekend it was ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. I’ve rated the show as a ‘Hidden Gem’ for two reasons: the performance sparkled in the summer sunshine, and sadly there were only a few of us in the audience – a mixture of an uncertain weather forecast and continuing Covid worries. But those of us who were present were treated to something really special.
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was published in 1602, yet it has a surprising amount of relevance to our own era and to current events. The action takes place (obviously) mostly in Windsor, but just over the river stands Eton, where one of the characters gets married; and with its school – already a century and a half old in Shakespeare’s time – educating the son of another one. Eton has also educated a disproportionate number of our recent and contemporary Prime Ministers.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson.
The play’s action is centred on Sir John Falstaff, a dissolute knight whose girth is matched only by his self-esteem. A serial shagger, desperate to obtain money and completely without morals. He’s quite happy to tell the identical lie to two married women simultaneously, professing undying love to get at their husbands’ fortunes. Ross Gurney-Randall played him big, and loud, dressed in a garish red, white and blue waistcoat. In fact, at his first entrance, Gurney-Randall rushed on waving an enormous Union Jack.
When his lie is exposed, because the women showed each other the letters (who’d have guessed they’d do that? …) Falstaff has to escape the angry retribution of Mistress Ford’s husband by hiding in a wheelie bin. A contemporary touch – Shakespeare wrote a laundry basket for this scene – but I was reminded of Boris hiding in a cold-storage fridge to avoid a pre-election TV interview.
Mistress Ford. And Mistress Page. Deborah Kearne and Sharon Drain played the wives of two of Windsor’s wealthy burghers. Along with Rachel Mullock’s Anne Page (Mistress Page’s daughter) and Christine Kempell’s Mistress Quickly, all of them dressed in shades of red, pink and fuchsia. They gossiped and plotted on the sunlit grass and it looked like an episode of T.O.W.I.E. – but Eton rather than Essex.
There are quite a few characters in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, so the company had to double (or triple) up on roles. In all, nineteen characters were played by just thirteen actors. For some it was easy: David Samson played only the Parson, while Miles Mlambo segued from reluctant suitor Slender to the landlord (Host) of The Garter Inn just by altering his body language and intonation. Rachel Mullock, by contrast, had also continually to change her costumes to become Pistol (a henchman of Falstaff), Dr Caius (a French Doctor, complete with a floppy red beret), and Anne Page, the wealthy heiress who (surprise, surprise) three different men want to marry.
If there’s a ‘Woman of The Match’ for this production (we’ve had Men of The Match for too long) it would have to be Mullock. The sheer number of changes (tricky because as Dr Caius she’s one of the men who want to marry her as Anne Page), the vundervull French accent, the thin black moustache which had to be pencilled on for every iteration of Dr Caius – mark the actor as an absolute stalwart.
Like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, this one is structured around inheritance, love (unrequited as well as requited), marriage, deceit and mistaken identity – all of which allowed the Company to showcase their talent for mayhem and slapstick comedy. Ben Darlington gave us a fairly manic Simple as well as the upright rectitude of George Pace. Ben Baeza was the peacemaking Justice Shallow (what a perfect name for a magistrate) as well as the young aristocrat Fenton, desperate to win the hand of Anne Page. (Spoiler – he does.)
Probably the most complex character, though, was Jules Craig’s Frank Ford. Like Sharon Drain and Rachel Mullock in some of their characters, Craig played a man – the over-suspicious husband Frank Ford. But Ford is so anxious to test his wife’s fidelity that he dresses up as someone called Master Brook to plot with Falstaff. So we had a woman, dressed as a man, donning disguise to become another man – I was glad we’d taken a decent bottle of wine to drink with our picnic …
Director Conor Baum and his co-Producer Joanna Rosenfeld gave us something as British and summery as Pimm’s on a sunlit lawn. Classic Shakespeare, with well-defined characters, striking costumes, and loads of manic entrances and exits. I’ve name-checked most of the cast, but we mustn’t forget the younger members of the Company – Alissandra Henderson, Saskia Monteiro and Faith McNeill – they appeared as minor characters throughout, and were pivotal in the penultimate section, where they dress up as fairies, along with some of the others, to shame Falstaff into some sort of realisation of just how gross he’s been.
The One Fell Swoop performances are organised so that the company only get given their characters’ parts on the Thursday before the weekend shows. They obviously can’t learn the lines in that short time, so they perform holding scripts, but all the emotional interaction and physical blocking has to be worked out very quickly. As one of them told me later, though – “We know each other very well, and we trust each other”. All theatre is about suspension of disbelief, of course, and it’s remarkable how quickly we choose not to notice the book in someone’s hand …
As well as chiming with the current political situation, the play brings to mind a century-old anecdote that’s probably worth recounting here. During the First World War, the British royal family, who of course were part-German as descendents of Prince Albert, anglicised their family name to ‘Windsor’, which is how it remains today. In 1917 the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who of course knew the original name, quipped that he “looked forward to seeing a performance of ‘The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha’ …”
I wonder if Boris Johnson, with his English nationalism and his Turkish great-grandfather, would find that funny?