FringeReview UK 2019
Ellie While casts a 1930s feel with Sasha Milavic Davies’ slapstick choreography, Frank Moon’s jazz-band compositions and songs, Charlie Cridland’s set, Vicki Fifield’s garlands with a fantastical array of costumery by Megan Cassidy and Pam Humpage’s wigs. Fight direction’s by Philip d’Orléans. There’s additional actors from Clean Break, London Bubble Theatre, and the Soldiers’ Arts Academy.
It was inspired to give last year’s Jacques, Pearce Quigley, the role of Falstaff in the Globe’s latest The Merry Wives of Windsor. Unlike the vibrant Helen Schlesinger in the Globe’s current Henriad, Quigley’s heard the chimes at midnight. His grave japing is a Mercury saturnined rather than satyred, iron hair streaming down like time.
His slimline Falstaff (bit of a theme this year) centres the whirligig of the 1930s (often 1920s) that director Ellie While casts round him, in Sasha Milavic Davies’ slapstick choreography: a flap to the music of time. While states she’s learned from last year’s fluid experiments with direction, and here straddles this Merry Wives with more traditional rehearsal elements across that open-ended approach.
And it works, picking up even more energy after its first three weeks. This production’s tighter than the Henry trilogy, enveloped in Milavic Davies’ dipsy brilliance and Frank Moon’s jazz-band compositions and songs (wish there were one or two more opportunities for Forbes Masson’s Page to croon).
Charlie Cridland’s set is uncluttered allowing a Mock Tudor country house feel to a repro-Tudor stage, where certain panels with hidden messengers get discovered with the slapstick of …. Yes it reminds one of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, where in 1938 Sigmund Freud’s life gets invaded to the rhythms of Ben Travers’ farce Rookery Nook he’s just seen.
There’s an eco-project too, the rags of time, a vivid Shabitat feel to décor; and costumes particularly at the end are quite stunning. Megan Cassidy’s Art Deco dress patterns and Pam Humpage’s wigs flare out. Vicki Fifield’s garlands and plants in the Globe’s courtyard furnish a fantastical garnish on everything. In each performance there’s eight additional actors too from Clean Break, London Bubble Theatre, and the Soldiers’ Arts Academy.
Merry Wives isn’t Shakespeare’s worst play, though critic Harold Bloom memorably skewers its fortnight-long commission in three pages, with its ‘pseudo-Falstaff’: for once he misses its theatrical point. Quite apart from what Verdi made of it, here’s a fiendishly intricate rather than subtle plot, nearly all prose that’s a bit stale but not unprofitable. Er… isn’t that called… farce?
For instance a buck-basket which you might have to make way for, as Anne Odeke and Joshua Lacey haul out the basket-cased Falstaff through the crowd to the Thames just outside. Fifty seconds of silent rapture. Merry Wives taken on its own terms is mile-high-energy theatre with a third dimension farces lack, and a fourth wall waiting to fall on you.
That’s Quigley’s cue, and his ad-libs seem like sprayed carnations on Shakespeare’s prose ground, rampant. ‘I can’t tell my arras from my elbow’ or at the end whilst mocked ‘I’m still here you know’; or emptying a Thames-filled shoe on an unfortunate’s head, or spraying out mouthfuls of beer over half the groundlings. With his narrow-bore baritone Quigley cuts through mere buffoonery, and streaks this production with a precise jocund melancholy. Only at the very end does his dying fall mute Falstaff’s face-saving sally.
Intricacy’s one thing, but the main plot’s simple. Down-at-heel or hell, Falstaff’s overtures to two married women at once, Mistresses Page and Ford (Sarah Finigan, Bryony Hannah, a wondrously jazzy double-act) go awry when apart from his lack of attraction he’s made that fatal error: an identical letter to each. Which they compare, aided by the turned-off Bardolph, bent on vengeance – Zach Wyatt, also strong as Fenton is a sulk on stalks here. His real cue’s when daughter Anne Page is to be married off to two suitors at once (her parents’ squabbling over which), but makes her own choice. And there’s a small matter of a duel (fight direction’s by Philip d’Orléans).
Whilst Masson’s Page is sanguine about Bardolph’s warnings – he’s notably avuncular towards Jude Owusu’s younger Ford, as well as more complaisant – Ford takes lean and hungry looks to near madness. Owusu manages incredulity and comical rages – like many in this production he’s notably clear. There’s delicious slapstick in his running out with an upended chair horns aloft to that defining line ‘I shall go horn mad!’ Owusu just lacks the extremes of the most memorable Fords, but his redemptive end is far more believably sweet than most with his wife, counselling peace to Page and indeed Falstaff.
Masson apart from his singing turns is one of those whose voice touches this production with distinction. Another is Richard Katz’ Dr Caius, part of the subplot – that aborted fight with Heddyd Dylan’s Sir Hugh Evans. Katz revels in farrrts and Franglais double-entendres as well as a sky-blue suit (echoing the French in this year’s Harry the Fifth). It’s difficult to develop Caius, but his appalled look on marrying a boy (just like Lacey’s Slender, both hoodwinked) turns him into one of Faydeau’s farcical waiters waiting for a slap. Dylan’s timorous Evans is so jittery you feel the production should give the parson a group hug.
Dickon Tyrrell’s Shallow collapsing in need of pills every time he gets excited brings a similar energy to Masson’s; Shallow’s self-delusion here rightly gets framed as a dyspeptic turn. Lacey as a middle-class-hat-twit lollops his way out of a wife.
Finigan and Hannah though provide some of the sparkiest chemistry, to Milavic Davies’ chorography where at one point they mime the episodes of Falstaff’s farces to their husbands with a mirror-dance of delirious storytelling. Hannah too thwacks a Deco whip to Quigley’s fawning, meant as an iconic image. It’s great fun, and cracks neatly with the choreography, though not quite believable in-period or out. Quigley’s red-rose erection though is prickingly good.
By contrast Wyatt’s Fenton and Boadicea Ricketts’ Anne Page are a slinky sexy delight with a fizz that needs no BDSM to spice up their chemistry. They make more of a rather sketchy courting than many, where Fenton’s explanation that he first wooed Anne for her dowry but melted into love has the right amount of naked desire to convince Anne he’d pluck her naked from any annuity.
There’s a whirl of energy from Odeke as the Hostess buffeting back every which way others try to turn her; and a fixer’s delight in Anne Reynolds’ Mistress Quickly. Having inadvertently occasioned the spat between Caius and Evans Quickly does her best for them and Fenton at once: Reynolds relishes warmth under venality, peeking out its wicked way.
It’s rare to see Merry Wives set before the 20th century, and it suits: Shakespeare’s prose sounds modern enough, its relaxed mores dateless. But the 1930s? Nothing comes through of a stated theme of women getting the full vote in 1928 but with rights now sliding backward. And opulence? Given the more jazzy, jerky 20s feel to much of it, an optimum moment might be that teetering before the ‘29 Crash. The Globe’s too robustly itself, and it hardly matters. It’s a terrific excuse for a dance with trouble ahead, the most cogent, most fun at the Globe this year. And Quigley to dye for.