By Ron Simpson
Two hours before the matinee performance of The Merry Wives at the home of Northern Broadsides, Dean Clough Mill in Halifax, Barrie Rutter is talking about the production. The flowing hair and trim beard are part of his character of Sir John Falstaff; the fat suit will come later. For a play ostensibly set in Windsor, Northern Broadsides has been rather keen on The Merry Wives. This is the third production Rutter’s directed and acted in. The first came in 1993 very soon after the foundation of the company. “I suppose I was quite a young Falstaff,” he laughs, “but we were a young company, so people made allowances.”
Rutter makes the point that the play is seldom done outside of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre – and Northern Broadsides, of course. He has a theory.“It’s rarely done because it’s called The Merry Wives of Windsor, so people in the rest of the country say, ‘Who’s bothered?’. So we’ve dropped all that and put much more local geography in. We’ve also updated it to the 1920s, the prosperous middle classes at play somewhere north of Leeds – we even use sporting equipment for weaponry!
“It’s a wonderful explosion of comic writing. Yes, he takes the mickey out of the French…and the Welsh…and the burgeoning middle class. They give Falstaff his comeuppance, but they get their comeuppance as well.”
The middle class’ comeuppance comes when Ann Page, daughter of one of the titular Merry Wives, manages to marry the man she loves rather than one of her parents’ wildly unsuitable choices. Rutter uses this to show the universality of Shakespeare.
“In 1993, when we took this play to India where it had never been before, it was taken totally as a forced marriage play. We played to a wonderful audience of 1,500 high school girls in Bombay and they were on their feet cheering when Fenton and Ann walked down at the end having married and he said, ‘You would have brought her into forced marriage.’ They stood up as one!
“It’s not as tame a play as some would have it – and the stuff of folly and human nature hasn’t changed at all. You have to buy into the fact that Falstaff goes back three times thinking he can woo these women and get some money, just like you buy into a murderer talking to you and you quite like him because he talks to you. Richard III slaughters everybody in the play, but you quite like him because he talks to you.”
Supposedly Shakespeare wrote the play because the Queen wanted to see Sir John in love– though Barrie remains profoundly sceptical about this, with good reason – but the play isn’t called after its main character. So how does Barrie see the balance between Falstaff and the merry wives?
“Everybody gets fair attention and the good thing about the play is its wonderful range of parts. For a company like us, we can put 16 actors on stage which is not easy to finance, but that’s where we put our money. It’s Falstaff’s play because that’s the story, but the character comedy goes down to the smallest parts which are all very funny. The character of Falstaff is quite different from the original in the Henry IV plays who’s a monster, a wonderful monster, but a monster. He buys the lame and sick and stands them in front of the cannon because that’s how he gets money. He’s an awful monster, but very attractive.
“The Falstaff of the Henry IVs would not have gone back three times to try to make money – he is better at cheating than that. Some of the same characters are in The Merry Wives – Pistol, Nim – but you can’t say they’re the same people as in Henry IV. When I was at Stratford in 1975, we did Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V and The Merry Wives and Brewster Mason played Falstaff in the three plays. He was dressed in pink and frivolousness in The Merry Wives – totally different from in Henry IV.”
The tour began with a long run at its co-producers, The New Vic in Stoke. After Halifax, a further 10 venues follow before the end of May; in the round, thrust stages, proscenium arch, following the unique corridor-and-arches configuration of the Viaduct. How does Rutter work that (apart from casting suitably versatile actors)? “A lot of the possibilities of the venues are worked out with the designer. We have some uprights that you’ll see today in the tunnel, but, in a large proscenium arch theatre where everyone’s looking one way, they’ll form a setting of trees at the back.
He continues: “Next week, we’re at Hull Truck, which is a thrust so Lis Evans is coming from Stoke to talk with me and decide where things go. It’s what we’ve done for 24 years. Often I don’t know what the answer will be, but I’m not frightened of not knowing because we’ve done it before, it’s what we do.”
The Merry Wives is touring nationwide until 28 May 2016 | Image Credit: Nobby Clarke