The Merry Wives of Windsor – Barbican, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Fiona Laird

Reviewer: Gus Mitchell

The Merry Wives of Windsoris a definite odd duck in Shakespearian universe. Perhaps the least critically regarded and studied of all his works, the play on paper, is a pretty insubstantial romp through the backwaters of provincial Elizabethan England. Trading on the triumphantly charismatic figure of Sir John Falstaff from his Henry IVplays, the story goes that the play was commissioned expressly by Elizabeth I herself following her disappointment at the lack of Falstaff in Henry V. Shakespeare had killed the fat knight off by this point.

For this romping, poetry and seriousness-free comedic breeze, Shakespeare incongruously pulls Falstaff forwards two-hundred years into Elizabeth’s day, and Fiona Laird’s RSC production at the Barbican does the same. We are thrown into a mixture of contemporary Essex and the hyper-energy of pantomime. After an initial jolt at the non-stop pace and volume, it becomes clear that this is probably the right, and maybe the only way to make the play work. Costumes are a bizarre modern design but with doublets, hoses and codpieces in place more often than not as additions to contemporary wear – but it works. The set also gives us a strange combination of Henry IV-esque Elizabethan tavern exterior with garish sofas and manky wheelie-bins.

Laird’s decision is to make Mistresses Ford and Page, the titular merry spouses, an almost illegally blonde pair of Essex wives, confounding stereotype by being strangely brilliant schemers. As they repeatedly derail Falstaff’s foolish attempts to seduce both of them and their money at once, the pair consistently display a certain pantomimic ruthlessness in their pursuit of a laugh or a set-piece. This clashes somewhat with the increasingly pathetic haplessness of David Troughton’s fine and booming Falstaff, but this is mostly the fault of Shakespeare’s script, which as many have pointed out before, drains Falstaff of his former depth and therefore makes the comedy inevitably thin.

The programme interestingly notes the central importance of Shakespeare’s friend, the famous clown Will Kemp, in the creation of Falstaff. The physical genius of a gifted clown actor must have been crucial when Shakespeare crafted the evident star-vehicle that is the Merry Wives. Laird and the RSC company have taken note of the importance of physicality and extra-theatrical display cried out for in the script. A great deal of lovely character detail shines through from most every performer, from Jonathan Cullen’s mispronouncing French doctor to Tom Padley as a hilarious posh-boy Slender. Occasionally, the overly-exerted screams and gawks and gasps can seem a little overegged, but again, this is part of the show’s borrowing from pantomime, which plenty of people still find funny.

The use of live music (also composed by director Fiona Laird) is a necessary contribution in giving a sense of the show as a never-stopping vehicle. The music is a mix of music-hall jingles and standard pop. A more consistently brave tone might have added, as might a more consistent reliance on physical, clownish inventiveness being just (or more important) than the text, which, in any case, was clearly being tinkered with plenty.

There was rarely a dull stretch, with Laird and company managing to pull off a fun take on a difficult beast. It would have been rewarding to see a more consistent and in-depth use of music or physicality to bring out the strengths inherent in Shakespeare’s strange bourgeois comedy, but, as it stands, the RSC’s Merry Wivesis a fun evening and stakes a good claim for this weird pariah in Shakespeare’s canon deserving its moments in the spotlight.

Runs until 5 Jan 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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