Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Elle While
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Sir John Falstaff is one of comedy’s greatest characters; a bawd, a drunk and a rogue, Falstaff’s friendship with and subsequent betrayal by the young Prince Hal on his way to kingship has had audiences flocking to the theatre for centuries. Falstaff was so popular that he even earned the sixteenth-century equivalent of a spin-off – The Merry Wives of Windsor– which the Globe has included in its summer season focused on Women and Power.
Having decided two married women are in love with him, Sir John Falstaff tries to woo them both quickly dispatching identical letters to Mistresses Ford and Page. His deception is soon discovered by the savvy and virtuous ladies who decide to turn the tables on their cheeky suitor, but Mr Ford’s jealousy is nonetheless aroused. Meanwhile the Fords plot to marry their daughter Anne to quite different men but she has ideas of her own.
Elle While’s production actively focuses on the intellect and determination of female characters who easily run rings around all of the menfolk in the play. Yet, one of the programme essays describes the play as a “#MeToo farce” which is rather pushing it when the production trades the high-spirited but honourable behaviour of Mistresses Ford and Page for easy laughs with a running breast-squeezing gesture which even the dutiful wives indulge in.
The focus is very much on the silly, ranging from knowing winks to the audience to overstuff erect codpieces and as much physical comedy as the company can include that drown Shakespeare’s text. The result is plenty of crowd-pleasing moments but a real lack of clarity in the action of the play and particularly who is who among the multiple subplot characters – even by the second half Anne’s lovers, Falstaff’s followers and local townspeople are still relatively confusing.
Any serious moments and discussions of love are crushed under the farce, so, for example, Jude Owusu cannot quite pitch his jealous soliloquies as Frank Ford, sometimes they suggest a real hurt and others he just seeks the vocal sympathy of the audience. The production’s very best moments are between Sarah Finigan’s Mistress Page and Bryony Hannah’s Mistress Ford, and in their gleeful plotting and clear supportive friendship the play really comes alive.
Aside from the finale set in a Windsor Park charmingly envisaged by Charlie Cridlan that takes on a look of the Rio Carnival with shaggy streamers and a brilliantly choreographed fairy dance by Sasha Milavic Davies, the larger group scenes are far less successful. This is particularly troublesome in the duelling subplot between Doctor Caius (Richard Katz – channelling Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo) and Sir Hugh Evans (Hedydd Dylan) which largely descend into inaudible screeching and feel tangential, almost irrelevant, to the plot.
Pearce Quigley makes for a surprisingly dour Falstaff and while there is some comedy to be had from his unassuming personality and belief in his desirability, Quigley has almost nowhere to go with the role as the action unfolds. Falstaff is a chief mischief-maker in Shakespeare’s work but with permanent understatement in Quigley’s approach it’s difficult to make sense of his motivation in pursing two women and a dastardly plan of ruination that he can barely raise any enthusiasm for.
Another programme essay makes an excellent case for transposing The Merry Wives of Windsor to the 1930s but aside from some amusing skits and Laura Rushton’s beautiful costumes, it’s really a pointless period setting that offers little additional insight. While’s production ticks along fairly well and is a chance to see light-hearted version of lesser-known play, but in its attempt to be merry it falls rather flat.
Runs until: 12 October 2019 | Image: Helen Murray