FringeReview UK 2018
Fiona Laird directs the RSC’s revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Lez Brotherston’s set features two tall Elizabethan-style frontages with all the wooden gables liable to glow with neon green, blue or white, Tim Mitchell’s lighting and skyscapes peculiarly attractive. Chris Warner’s zazzy orchestral arrangements feature a live band directed by Gareth Ellis. Gregory Clarke ensures the sound’s contained. Till September 22nd, then at the Barbican December 7th to January 5th 2019.
The only way to Windsor is through Essex, we’re told in the wonderfully loud posters accompanying this production, and so it joyfully proves. In a play hardly revered for its subtlety, indeed rumoured to have been written under duress, it seems fitting we find Sir Hugh Evans’ Welsh parson (David Acton) egging on the audience to sing ‘Bread of Heaven’ ‘give it some Welsh welly’ or a couple of Polish odd-job men speaking Polish with surtitles.
They’re speaking of binary propositions and Proust’s Swann’s Way, by the way. Or the Swan of Avon’s way. And they’re just the pair who upend a filthy pink wheelie-bin (aka laundry basket containing Falstaff), into a ford. After he tries it on with Mistress Ford. So quite a little of the terminology’s altered too and David Troughton’s Falstaff gets his chops round ‘wheelie-bin’ with a skirling spitting relish of disgust.
But it’s the Essex Way that strikes where ‘tis predominant, Fiona Laird’s loud and neon-filamented cod-Elizabethan scenario is a pacey enough affair with eddies of comedy played up, bringing the show up too. It’s not just Welsh choiring from the aisles but the point when young Anne Ford’s suitor Dr Caius in Jonathan Cullen’s delicious French pronounces ‘ears’ like ‘arse’ to the attractive Windsor wives, and ‘count’, well you get their filthy looks. An early antagonist then friend of Sir Hugh, with Dr Caius we’re treated here to a more active pairing than usual, and there’s a spark to smaller roles too.
Lez Brotherston’s set features two tall Elizabethan-style frontages with all the wooden gables liable to glow with neon pink, green, blue or white (Tim Mitchell’s lighting and skyscapes peculiarly attractive), with a few more naturalist gestures like small cabinets and a single descent into the cellarage where hot-tubs and chaise rise and fall.
The wonderful Elizabethan-on-acid costumes with silver doublets and fantastical stitchings match the gables. It’s like 1597 on a mushroom trip. The landed idiot Slender is incidentally decked in sky blue with a blazer crest, but it’s the wives who lounge in silvery majesty.
There’s a minimum of stage fuss and props, clean for the busy action with one flight of stairs built in to the house-front shells. Chris Warner’s zazzy orchestral arrangements push out everything from cod folk to something more modern, with a live band directed by Gareth Ellis. Gregory Clarke ensures the sound’s contained though there’s some audience pick-up and coughs in surround sound.
Just as the language isn’t in the least threatening to first-time Shakespeare audiences, the plot’s fast and funny without any modern help (much better than for instance The Two Gentlemen of Verona), but even funnier when it’s pointed up. The perennials of Ford’s ‘horn-mad’ sexual jealousy, or the Pages trying to forcibly marry their daughter (but each parent choosing differently and the daughter elsewhere) as well as Falstaff’s own mad horn of lust, is perennial; his cod-codpiece here is permanently erect, even after a dousing.
The wives’ discovery of Falstaff’s identical love-letters and their determination to get even and quell Ford’s jealousy is rare in showing womens’ agency as the driver. Beth Cordingly’s sassy Mistress Ford and Rebecca Lacey’s earthier Mistress Page are a sovereign Essex pair and along with Troughton, chief attractions.
Harold Bloom hates this pseudo-Falstaff, as he calls him. But there’s enough of the original to morph into Verdi’s great Falstaff, the greatest justification for writing it. Vaughan Williams’ 1927 opera Sir John in Love is a sound second.
There are losses. The climax of this play takes place in Windsor Park, and that’s scrapped in favour of the town square. It robs a curious, almost visionary quality to the end, a kind of benediction that feeds into the way Shakespeare refreshes even his slightest work by dipping it in a little vernal makeover. Still, the Elizabeth I-statue’d climax is good enough.
Troughton’s Falstaff is consummate, whether preening himself in his absurd kit, or getting his tennis kit half off, or looking filthy, or in his second attempt rainbow-dressed as The Fat Woman of Brentford (here, Brentwood, Essex, but then we’re still meant to be in Windsor). His great post-dousing speech conjures up the ghost of his prose soliloquies in Henry IV Part 2. Troughton conveys Falstaff’s absurdities, the silliness of his crestfallen twitting, without caricaturing Falstaff any more than he’s one already. He handles the denouement with a fine balance.
Cordingly and Lacey are neatly distinguished too, Cordingly tall, slim, stylish, whilst Lacey, looking to marry off her daughter comes as more relaxed sexually, her earthier complacency matched by her husband’s. ‘Wives can be merry, yet honest too’ she taunts, though you wonder if she’s so shy of propositioning; whereas the slightly younger Fords are passionately in lust in this production. Vince Leigh’s Frank Ford himself is taut without the darkness that attends the most penetrating performances, giving this slim-dimensioned character some hinterland of remorse later. Recalling as here the way Ford wants to prove himself top cockerel to everyone including George Page, there’s a bit more to be got from him. Paul Dodds’ affable Page has less to do, but here is believable as a man who can’t be bothered to believe his wife unfaithful. Nor his daughter determined and resourceful.
The lovers are made sillier than they have to be. Karen Fishwick’s Anne Ford is a petulant cry-baby, nicely realized. It’s a consistent vision though robs us of Anne’s freshness that sense of renewal that also comes with this admittedly slight play. Her lover Fenton though is a prat-falling bumbler, learning his declaration by rote and crashing over every object. Luke Newberry does an excellent job of an ungrateful brief, yet at the end comes out with his final speech as almost normal. His stuttering rival (apart from the now rather personable Caius of Cullen) Slender, has to be even more idiotic than usual. Tom Padley makes him seem Rodrigo’s idiot brother. His uncle Shallow is made, in Tim Samuels’ nicely narrow delivery, genetically related in his moral blindness: the sharpest tool of a blunt family.
Ishia Bennison’s quick-fire, fluttering Mistress Quickly is nicely counterpointed by the garter’s Hostess, Kay Brittain a believable vamp who has rivalry in Bardolph, now Charlotte Josephine (who catches a wedding bouquet later). Josh Finan’s Nym has a new pun on his name and some LGBT surprise to spring, and you’ll enjoy finding out with whom. Afolabi Alli’s Pistol has less to do though counterparts Nina Taleghani’s Robin – full of physical gags. Steve Basaula’s Servant and Sakuntala Ramanee in the tiny role of Jane Goodbody spring up through cupboards and jokes requiring injury time.
This is sparkling, a sassy, sexy, and sure-footed revival that allows the great clarity of diction throughout to underpin the built-in ad-libs and additions Laird brings. They nearly all work. Though we’re in a hallucinated Elizabethan age where the two Elizabeths collide, the fairy-tale elements tip us – just – back to the period it was written in. There aren’t any mobile phone gags, and the wheelie-bin doesn’t quite disrupt the codpieces, any more than tennis-wielding Troughton. Hot tubs aside, you can’t credit an Essex girl even accepting forced marriage is legal. Though as for an egg in Falstaff’s sack, well that might just prove fashionable again in some Essex gastro-pub near you. Wherever you are.