The Merry Wives of Windsor
Photograph by Helen Murray
Summer came and with it the tradition of deciding what Shakespeare to see at the Globe – I didn’t fancy a three-in-a-day Henriad* but did decide, based on last year’s splendid Noble Kinsmen, that it might be worth checking out what they did with the bard’s English comedy.**
The answer is that they gave it a 30s vibe, threw a great cast at it, and let them get on with it.
I say 30s vibe because the setting was a bit nebulous*** but I’m judging on the occasional outburst of jiving – set to some fabulous swing which had the seated audience shaking their shoulders and some of the groundlings having a bit of a bop. And also on the brilliant costumes of the eponymous wives – Bryony Hannah as Mistress Ford got a succession of splendid jumpsuits while Sarah Finigan as Mistress Page got a more classic (and slightly frumpy) pre-New Look dress vibe****. The costumes played up the age differences between the actresses, which gave their friendship a slightly more unlikely air than I have seen it played before (usually they come across as the sort of people who have been friends for decades). But this was nothing compared to the youthful Anne Page and the much older (and distinctly knowing) Mistress Quickly. How on earth those two ever met, I truly could not comprehend (although that’s not to say, once met, they didn’t make sense as friends, what with both of them having the most liberated outlook on life). The 50s setting, of course, with its archetypes of womanly women and manly men, certainly suits the mood of the play.
And so on to the husbands. Jade Owusu played Ford’s jealousy brilliantly, and his moments in disguise (complete with Jafaican accent and rasta hat with dreadlocks) were very funny*****. His anger was by far the highest stakes of the play – not to play down those glorious rages, but rather to emphasise that this play is all about trickery including people tricking themselves (but luckily his self-inflicted jealousy has a much happier end than Othello’s). Forbes Masson’s more laidback Page was a welcome contrast – all bonhomie and huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ energy which explained his welcoming so many random suitors of his daughter into his house, and completely missing what was happening with his wife.
I found myself completely put off the scenes between Shallow and Slender, usually pleasingly bumbling and slightly venal, by the still-fresh memory of Ian McKellen reciting his speech from Henry IV part 2 about how all of his childhood friends are dead. Made his attempts to marry off his relatives (and marry them well) seem a little more reasonable. I usually try to avoid any cross-over between the Merry Wives of Windsor and the Henriad (I know it was written later, but I’ve never tried inserting it into the timeline), and it is worth noting that despite doing them as part of the same season, the Globe has not shared cast or setting. If you have rampant speculation of your own of how they fit together, please do feel free to share it however!
On the other hand, the other lovers were splendid. Hedydd Dylan’s Parson Hugh was the comedy Welshman we all love (with thanks to Gavin and Stacey’s Uncle Bryn), while as Doctor Caius Richard Katz’s French accent lent itself to incredibly overblown word-play – certainly every time his “by gar” came out distinctly more… sexual, shall we say****** the Southern belles of a certain age behind us could be heard to say “oh Lord!” and I, I am ashamed to say*******, laughed all the louder. They did not return after the interval. I can only assume they had no idea of what the Merry Wives of Windsor was about, because let’s face it there’s none of it which isn’t about sex. Especially not the random bit with the
At least the poor souls weren’t in the pit, where as well as all the bawdy bits they would have had to endure being crushed under Falstaff’s ignominious exit in laundry basket (although I am confident the actor made surreptitious use of the stage trapdoor rather than actually zorbing through the audience in a wooden box) and, if you were in the front row, being hit by any number of Falstaffian spit takes that grew more and more deliberate (and more obviously signalled) as the play went on.
Falstaff himself was played most unusually by Pearce Quickly as surprisingly melancholic – like some sort of cross between Billy Connolly and Alan Bennett with an obviously fake stomach on matchstick thin legs and no apparent pleasure in what he was doing. Even when boasting of it to Ford he didn’t seem to be enjoying it. Hell, even when being inexpertly – but gloriously vampishly – seduced by Mistress Ford! Still it did make sense of his acceptance that the series of mishaps which befall him are the work of malignant fate and not enemy action (I would have suspected the ladies much sooner), and the good grace with which he surrenders once he knows********.
All in all, it was a wonderful romp – one lacking in any message other than “Don’t be a dick to your wife”, and also maybe “sex, hur hur hur”. Just the thing for a summer evening.
* Some people are doing it as groundlings. I am assuming they have knees of steel already – mine would certainly need replacing afterwards…
** And I think it’s the only comedy set in England? If I am wrong please correct me!
*** I guess it always is when your set is wooden columns painted to look like marble
**** Can I say it was entirely in character for her outfits to be slightly frumpy without it being catty? No, I probably can’t. But then cattiness feels very on-trend for Merry Wives, and I am definitely talking about the character.
***** Insert as lengthy a discourse as you feel might be necessary on playing racial stereotypes for laughs – I think since it was an actor of colour doing it, and the idea perfectly fit the character and the period, and it was meant to be bad, I’m happy laughing at it.
****** And who knew that bugger was derived from the Latin for Bulgarian and it’s all about the supposed link between heresy and homosexuality, exactly like sodomy. Learning something new every day!
******* Not that ashamed.
******** The Falstaff of Henry IV would, I feel, either threaten to be reveng’d on the whole pack of them, or would have been absolutely laughing his head off.