As far as I knew it, the plot of The Merry Wives was (to paraphrase Elizabeth I) laughs and a bit with a box. Falstaff and some wives? Of Windsor? Who are merry? Well, none of that is an inaccurate description for a play that is even more frothy than Twelfth Night and more contrived than Cymbeline…
This was a touring outdoor production put on by the (all-male) Festival Players, with an extremely limited set (three timber-panelled panels in front of a gazebo)) set of props (aforementioned box) and cast. There were six of them, I think, although I couldn’t say for certainty because there was – yay! – plenty of doubling up and the ladies’ costumes involved hanky headdresses which were surprisingly effective at changing appearances*. In general the setting, like the play itself, was non-specific medieval. Oh, and it made good use of a convenient tree.
And it turns out that, actually, the plot of the Merry Wives is sight more feminist than any other Shakespeare I’ve seen. It goes as follows: Falstaff, running out of money in Windsor, hits on the grand scheme of pursuing two women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. He assumes that they won’t talk to each other and can therefore woo them both in identical terms. But guess what: women do actually talk to each other and Mistresses Ford and Page decide they will teach Falstaff a lesson. Over the course of the play they manage to get him beaten and humiliated in a number of ways which he actually takes with very good grace. The plot is complicated by masters Page and Ford, alerted to Fastaff’s plans, who variously trust their wife already or learn to trust their wife through the development of the story. Even the sub plot is about woman contriving to marry the man of her choice, rather than either of her parents preferred suitors! That was a long paragraph just to say – The Merry Wives of Windsor has some surprising things going for it.
So too do the Festival Players, not least a very impressive audibility in the open air. Mark Sprigg’s Fastaff was jolly and vulgar, lacking that mean-ness of spirit he shows in Henry IV Part 2 and instead great-hearted and humorous. Samuel Griffiths was Mistress Page and William Ross-Fawcett was Mistress Ford – between them they had wonderful, waspish double-act going on (goodness knows how else they filled the time before Falstaff came along, unless with sniping at each other), with some truly brilliant moments of in-character over-acting. Their husbands (Stephen Horncastle as Page, Paul Valentine as Ford) were great also – especially Ford’s gibbering, verbose rage**.
In the second plot, Connor Reed’s sweet and earnest Anne Page takes after her mother in trickery and marries a splendidly romantic and impulsive Fenton (played also by William Ross-Fawcett. The doubling was v-e-r-y impressive) while trying to avoid a Welsh parson***, a doctor and the charmingly gormless Slender (played by Paul Valentine).
Johnny Coppin’s music was good too – a setting of The Passionate Shepherd to his Love (I know it’s good but it’s not Shakespeare…) and one I didn’t recognise (and alas cannot remember well enough to attempt identification) which may have been specially written since it seemed to be all about wives, short and tall and being merry. If this rings a bell for anyone, please let me know!
* Also, despite hot-footing it across Streatham (surprisingly wild) Common, I didn’t arrive in enough time to get a programme. So I hope I’ve got everyone’s names and roles right!
** And a special shout-out to the moustache he put on to “disguise” Ford as Master Brook – perfect comedy. I should also commend the whole cast for managing to stick out costumes of many layers (some velvet) in the scorching summer heat.
*** Shakespeare seems to be obsessed with the Welsh and cheese – is this a thing? Is that why Jasper Fforde’s books have a long-running welsh cheese smuggling plot? There’s also a Calvin and Hobbes connection, courtesy of the line Thereby hangs a tale…