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The Merry Wives of Windsor – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Blanche McIntyre

Often overlooked, there’s little doubt that The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, almost a farce. With no deep-and-meaningful plot, it’s simple and uncomplicated comedy which in the hands of the right creative team it can be a real delight. Here Blanche McIntyre takes the helm and delivers a piece of theatre that will have you laughing out loud from start to finish.

With its suburban setting and comic themes it’s a play which sits very comfortably in a modern time period as a broke Falstaff tries to get money by seducing two married women with rich husbands, only to find that in suburbia neighbours talk to each other and furthermore, the women here are more than capable of dealing with people like him.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has given us a work of wonder for a set, full of tiny bits of detail that all add up to create something special. A rotating piece gives us a house, complete with neatly painted door, rolling lawns and neatly trimmed hedges – then it’s the outside of the pub, and then the inside of a dentist’s surgery, with other small alleyways or doorways in between. Scene changes are slick, keeping up the pace of the comedy but extra interest is created during each transition by the small vignettes being played out in front, all adding to the fun.

John Hodgkinson is a typically larger-than-life Falstaff, delivering his dialogue with impeccable timing and with a delightful line in facial expressions and sideways glances that have the audience laughing without a word being spoken. Opposite him as the eponymous wives are Siubhan Harrison (Mistress Ford) and Samantha Spiro (Mistress Page), who work well together and seem to be having a huge amount of fun as they plot their various retaliations on Falstaff. Wil Johnson gives us a stern Page, determined to get his own way while Richard Goulding is a typically unlikeable, overly-jealous Ford.

This is a piece where many of the minor roles can be as memorable as the more prominent characters, and the cast here takes full advantage of their opportunities. Ian Hughes is a Calon Lan singing Hugh Evans, contrasting with John Dougall’s gruff and forthright Shallow. Tara Tijani and John Leader create an earnest couple as Anne Page and Fenton, while Patrick Walshe McBride delivers a vacuous Slender, covering his ineptness with silly grins. Threatening to steal every scene is Jason Thorpe, whose Dr Caius is an absolute delight of mangled English that’s reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo. It’s all done with such good humour that it’s easy to overlook the racial stereotyping that creates some of the comedy. Tim Sutton’s music adds an extra joy, with some foot-tapping big band sounds popping up regularly throughout.

Whatever you manage to do with most of the play, there’s little that can be done with the final scene which is very much of its time, and Elizabethan folk tales and superstitions no longer make as much sense as they did when the play was written. The team have done what they can to bring it up to date, and it’s just a small issue in the wider context of the comedy, and Hodgkinson’s final moment on stage at the end is proof in itself of how to create comedy without saying a word.

If your experience of Shakespeare comes from seeing some of his more well-known tragedies or history plays don’t miss this opportunity to see just how funny some of his writing is – and if you’re already familiar with Merry Wives, then this is a great chance to remind yourself. Either way, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a very funny and entertaining time.

Runs until 7 September 2024

Hugely entertaining

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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