Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Elle While
The bard’s only comedy set in England The Merry Wives of Windsor serves to demonstrate the futility in revenge, jealousy, and shares in delight for sarcasm, farcical humour, and a scandal. Falstaff, the same but considerably different Falstaff of Henry IV fame now finds himself lusting for Margaret Page and Alice Ford, the wives of Windsor wealth. As theatres remain dark, The Globe invites those at home to experience a lesser-known Shakespeare play in a recording of their 2019 production.
Navigating the trip-hazards of narrative, Elle While’s direction of a notoriously easy story to over-load somewhat pays off. Fitting for a Shakespearean comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor has, at its core, a rather simple two-act structure with a dual narrative. That of the suitor’s pursuit of Anne Page, and Falstaff’s exploits in attempts to seduce the wives of Windsor. Yet, more often than not, the strands of interactions and characters congeal and cause difficulties for audiences to form a coherent story. Attempting to separate these strands, While achieves just enough to create concise story elements, without diluting the intensity of the cast.
Trouble is, when you share a stage with larger-than-life characters, with equally vibrant performances, some of the less dominant characters ebb away in the sea of chaos. Particularly guilty is Zach Wyatt in the role of Fenton. There’s a detachment from the language, a recitation for the script not out of passion, but from memory. No impact is left, and in truth, his entire character is forgotten the moment another player takes the stage. It severely hinders the secondary story within the narrative, saved only by the side-splitting ludicrous antics of Dr Caius (Richard Katz) or the production’s finest asset outside of Pearce Quigley, Anita Reynolds turning in an engrossing Mistress Quickley.
Conversely, Quigley’s Falstaff will cement the production in memory. His audience interactions, farcical and yet, never straying into pantomime will create lasting impacts. It’s an authentic Shakespearean atmosphere, the blurring between the audience and the cast for brief snippets, not overstaying or falling into a hammy showcase. Evident by the audience’s faces, the capability to now witness the reactions as Falstaff blunders into, or spits Sack out onto the unfortunate front rows is something only achieved with the filming of these events. We’ve all been sitting in the circle, craning necks to watch someone flush red as the cast pick a victim, but the filming of Merry Wives allows us to be involved with the interaction, significantly heightening the laugh value.
Occasionally though, the camera work is heavily edited, drawing the firmest line between live theatre and filmmaking. There is little editing process in theatre, no cuts or split-second angle changes. The rule of general cinema is never to hold a shot for more than a few seconds. Well, theatre takes the reverse. In moments of agony or professions of emotion, a rare occurrence in The Merry Wives, the last thing needed is a series of transitional angle changes when, in reality, we just want to watch the performance unfold in a steady shot.
Few rank The Merry Wives of Windsor as a triumphant piece of Shakespeare. It strides out of the gate with promise, but quickly the pace deteriorates as characters lose their charm and despite While’s best efforts, the momentum unravels. The Globe’s recent production though has strong merits in Pearce Quigley’s performance, tremendous supporting roles, and a pleasant live band. So, have someone pour you a quart of sack, dismiss the staff and embrace a farcical comedy, but be wary of who might be courting your partner as you do…
Available here until 14 June 2020