I’ll get this out of the way first; the opening sequence of the RSC’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is in competition for the worst thing I’ve ever seen on the RSC stage. Over the silhouette of a town was heard the voice of a messenger arriving at William Shakespeare’s lodgings, bearing a letter from the queen. The queen – who appeared in cartoon form on a screen – harangued Shakespeare for daring to kill Falstaff off in his Henry V, and demanded he write a comedy featuring Falstaff, to be staged in two weeks. A grumbling Shakespeare began writing, but soon started laughing at his own jokes, fading out as the characters appeared on stage. This bad, bad radio play – based on an apocryphal story – lent nothing to the production, was entirely bereft of wit, and only extended an already over-long first half. I’m going to forget it ever existed.
More pertinent to Fiona Laird’s production was the second part of the opening sequence, in which all of the play’s characters were introduced, with names and relationships projected across the back of the stage. While this also dragged on forever, with the actors mugging and dancing as if grabbing a preemptive curtain call, it gave time to appreciate the set-up, and was belatedly earned in a production that achieved the not-inconsiderable feat of clearly distinguishing and making funny every one of the enormous company. This was Essex, and Laird and designer Lez Brotherston had created a deliberate mash-up of Elizabethan and TOWIE that was so outrageous, it worked. Page wore a pin stripe suit with bloomers and ruff; Mistress Ford wore a push-up corset and leopard-print leggings. The two mock-Tudor houses that made up the set were decorated with English Heritage signs, and a bust of Queen Elizabeth I presided over the whole. Laird’s conceit was not original – Merry Wives is frequently updated to the trashy middle-class of the period of staging – but the cultural ubiquity of TOWIE gave this a pleasing specificity, while allowing for some gentle interrogation of class politics.
For much of the production, the setting worked. The two on-stage houses rotated to set up a range of village locations, and scene changes (far too long and overlaid with overly intrusive music that reminded me of a Christopher Luscombe production) gave little snapshots of the townsfolk going about their business. The production nicely captured a sense of a little-England community, relatively close knit and over-invested in one another’s business, into which erupted Falstaff (David Troughton) and his cronies. Much of the pre-show paratexts featured discussion of the aspirational middle class being looked down on by the landed elite; the sense of a class tourist underestimating the close ties of the community he had arrived on worked, and gave the production’s community ethos a substantial hook.
However, there was an ugly political undercurrent to the production. This production’s idea of Essex was one of overwhelming white privilege, with the actors of colour reduced to housekeeper, beautician and servant/hanger-on roles. A paratext identified the Union-Jack t-shirt-wearing Falstaff as a Brexit voter, but that hardly seemed to distinguish him from an environment where even the ostensible heroines, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, screamed their instructions loudly and slowly at the European servants who were employed to carry away the wheelie bin that served as this production’s buck-basket. The production offered a nice undermining of this particular moment, as the two servants turned to one another and spoke in a different language, subtitles revealing they making jokes about Proust and binary code, but there was no further problematisation of the characters’ racism. And while it’s unfair to criticise a production of Merry Wives for poking fun at people who don’t speak English ‘properly’, the setting made the laughs at the expense of Sir Hugh and Caius’s accents even more uncomfortable than usual. While the small community eventually integrated its outsiders, the production seemed entirely uninterested in challenging the attitudes that led to them being othered in the first place.
When the production worked, it was through leaning into the ludicrous, bordering on pantomimic, performances; in fact, while I have concerns about the interpretive choices, this was a game ensemble who gave it their all. Jonathan Cullen twisted Caius’s syllables for all he was worth to get as many ears/arse misunderstandings in as possible (causing David Acton’s Sir Hugh to put his hands over his backside in surprise). Tom Padley threw Slender’s malapropisms out with all of the brash over-confidence of a barely educated public schoolboy, and found some tenderness and sympathy when he was rebuffed (especially as Tim Samuels, with a seemingly endless talent for finding double entendres in otherwise unremarkable lines, kept slapping him in disgrace). And Sir Hugh had a bravura sequence where, while waiting for the duel, he nervously began singing ‘Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer’ and led a sing-a-long of the final line. There was a fascinating moment here where a not-inconsiderable part of the Stratford audience automatically completed the final line without prompting when he first sang it (which prompted him to conduct the audience); while the moment was genuinely funny, it was perhaps yet another reminder of the overwhelmingly white Christian tradition that underpinned the production’s assumptions.
The standout performance, surprisingly, was Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter. Starting at about 130%, she only rose to greater heights throughout the production, her enormously Essex drawl the voice of the community as she manipulated the various lovers, made peace between the quarrelers, and tied the village together. I’ve never been conscious of just how important a role this can be, and her easy socialising contributed enormously to the production’s success. Yet she also had her own story; besotted with Falstaff, she was overcome to find that the ‘Fat Woman of Brentford’ had gone up to his room, and held herself together long enough to call him to an account. Upon being left alone, however, she collapsed into a chair, pulled a couple of gel packs out of her top, and sobbed (she later picked up the packs to clap together in celebration of Fenton). Indeed, the company’s ability to find small arcs for even minor characters made for constant interest – Charlotte Josephine’s Bardolph arrived in Windsor wearing jeans and leather jacket and drinking lambrini from the bottle; once passed over to the Hostess, she increasingly appeared in leggings, dress and long hair, gradually being moulded into a copy of the Hostess herself.
The high energy made for a fine lead-in to the setpieces and, while they took a long time to arrive, they were well worth the wait. The two merry wives were droll and confident; Mistress Page (Rebecca Lacey) was the boss of her own chain of beauticians, and the women hatched their plot while Meg had a foot spa. The two were set up as deliberately appalling actors, mugging their terror at Ford’s approach for Falstaff’s benefit with hilarious woodenness and affectation. And the physical comedy worked well. Troughton’s physicality in his fat suit allowed him a certain amount of dexterity (as long as he was facing the right way), and his creepy rubbing of his hands all over his body when seducing turned, when faced with danger, into an amusing slapstick routine. The wheelie bin was rather too high for him to jump into, as much as he tried, and eventually he was manhandled into the convincingly gross repository to be wheeled away.
Other physical sequences worked less well, which I think was primarily a result of the filming. Dewi Humphreys’s direction for the screen was usually excellent, and as the production made good use of the thrust stage, there was a pleasing attentiveness to different angles that showed off the various configurations of the stage to good effect. However, the second trick (Falstaff dressed as the Woman of Brentford) looked awful; after Falstaff’s appearance in a dress (not nearly as funny as the production seemed to think it was) the stage descended into a chaos of pratfalls, chases and comedy accidents. The camera mostly chose to focus in on individual elements within this, making it impossible to get a sense of the overall carnage, and rather unflatteringly exposing some clunkiness in the choreography that would have been more or less invisible as part of the whole stage picture. Capturing this level of simultaneous activity would undoubtedly have been a challenge; my sense is that the ideal would have been some form of split screen, which I suspect might be too difficult. A similar issue affected the climactic action of Falstaff’s tormenting as Herne the Hunter, where the camera was either too close or too distant to get a sense of what was happening within the melee (though the other issue of that scene – capturing the three different ‘Anne Pages’ being taken away to be married – was crystal clear).
The production wasn’t without its more serious moments. Vince Leigh did some excellent work as Ford, his soliloquies capturing the poison of his jealousy. Beth Cordingly was brilliant as Mistress Ford, tolerating her husband without pandering to him, and showing genuine hurt at his accusations even while being in control of her own tricks. The TOWIE setting worked well here, setting up a world of implicit vapidity (most obvious in Karen Fishwick’s Anne Page, with her model dog tucked under her arm, her obsession with selfies and her excitement at the massive rock Fenton bought her) that made the crumbling of Mistress Ford’s brash façade and quieter sense of wrong carry weight.
There’s more to say, which is an indication of the individually fun moments scattered throughout the production. Caius’s discovery that he had married Nym in the concluding action was greeted with joy by them both, as they snogged passionately on the stage to cheers from everyone (a pleasing counter to some earlier gay double entendres that felt decidedly less inclusive). Paul Dodds was an excellent George Page, his Elvis burns and bling part of his rough, amiable confidence. Luke Newberry played Fenton absolutely sincere, an excellent counter to the broad performances elsewhere, though his pratfalls (he was hugely short-sighted) were much more cruel than funny. And Ishia Bennison was a delight throughout as the under-estimated Mistress Quickly, who came into her own as the personification of Queen Elizabeth, mounted on the village square’s plinth. In a way, this was a play that was much less than the sum of its parts; looked at in detail, there were lots of fun performances, but poor choices led to a tone that was far less pleasant than those performances merited.