Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Fiona Laird
Reviewer: James Garrington
If you’re hoping to see how Shakespeare can be brought up to date, then look no further than this fun-packed production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
There is little doubt that Shakespeare designed many of his plays to be crowd-pleasers, aimed at entertaining and engaging with the general public of the time – and Merry Wives is a typical example, reviving much-loved characters from earlier plays and placing them in a new setting and different time period. With that in mind, you can’t help but think that he would have approved of his work evolving to continue to entertain the everyday public – and evolved it certainly has. This is a Merry Wives for the Prosecco-drinking generation with strong echoes of popular TV shows visible in the production, and as a result, it adds an extra layer of relevance to the comedy.
By practically transporting the play from Windsor to a stereotypical modern Essex, director Fiona Laird has taken the already ridiculous characters and made them even funnier. Played on a stylised brightly neon-hued set (designed by Lez Brotherston) and dressed in absurdly hybrid mock-Elizabethan/stereotypical modern costume, it sounds as though the production ought to be embarrassingly tacky – but in Laird’s hands it stays just the right side of the line so becomes instead extremely funny with moments of genuine hilarity.
Leading the universally strong cast is David Troughton as a suitably grotesque Falstaff, beautifully supported by Beth Cordingly (Mistress Ford) and Rebecca Lacey (Mistress Page), like a couple of characters out of Footballers’ Wives. Paul Dodds provides a practical Page, at odds with his wife about a suitable husband for their daughter Anne, played by Karen Fishwick with an often gloriously vacant expression. Vince Leigh’s Ford gives a nice cross between anger and sadness, but his big moments come when he disguises himself as Brook, creating a character that is even more absurd than the rest.
This is an ensemble production where the minor characters are equally memorable: David Acton is a Cwm Rhondda-singing Sir Hugh Evans, Tom Padley delivers a vacuous Slender and Luke Newberry is a perpetually clumsy Fenton. Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter is portrayed with a nod towards Barbara Windsor and The Queen Vic, but perhaps most memorable is Jonathan Cullen as Frenchman Dr Caius, whose mispronunciation of English is often genuinely hilarious.
Some liberties have been taken with the script to add comedy and bring it up to date, but unfortunately little could be done with the final scene which remains as problematic as ever in a modern production. While the Elizabethan folk-tales and superstitions may no longer quite ring true though, the themes of seduction and sexual jealousy are as relevant today as they were then. The production is enhanced by some appropriate incidental and background music (also written by Laird) carefully placed to reinforce the humour. Include the many extra bits of comedy that have been added to Shakespeare’s already funny script, and the result is a production that will stick in the memory for a long time.
This is a masterclass in how to create comedy by extreme stereotyping of grotesque characters. Highly recommended.
Runs Until 22 September 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC