THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _7th SEP.

June 13, 2024

images © Manuel Harlan @ RSC.

It isn’t uncommon for Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor to be given something of a modern makeover. After all, despite being amongst the somewhat lesser-known of the Bard’s comedies, it remains strikingly modern in its sensibilities and approach (trigger warnings of ‘body shaming’ and the like notwithstanding). Its zippy, domestic shenanigans – of double-dealing, scheming and paranoia as two housewives dole out some due comeuppance in the direction of a lecherous visitor – could easily be seen as the progenitor of the modern sitcom or farce.

Blanche McIntyre’s (All’s Well That Ends Well, Arabian Nights) spritely, colourful new production is leant extra immediacy, framed in a small English hamlet in the apparent midst of Euros fever – buntings of St George’s Cross interchangeably swapped out with the Bundesflagge (an often-omitted minor subplot regarding German thieves is kept curiously intact here, despite contributing little). Groups of youths bandy about in football shirts, and even burst into spontaneous eruptions of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. The Garter Inn, interpreted here as a fairly standardised country pub, is adorned with signs advertising screenings of ‘Pie Sports’, whilst its exuberant host (Emily Houghton) is the image of some ilk of punk/Brit pop hybrid, who appears ready to swing by Glastonbury after serving her regulars.

If it’s a somewhat typical depiction of the English idyll, then it at least feels authentic and current. The gossipy, curtain-twitching buzz about the town at the outset is fixated on young debutant Anne Page (Tara Tijani), whose father (Will Johnson) is plotting to marry her off to hapless, foppish young suitor, Slender (a delightful Patrick Walshe McBride). Anne’s mother (Samantha Spiro), contrarily, has her sights set on marrying young Anne off to one she believes to have greater prospects and dowry; the animated – and very French – doctor Caius (Jason Thorpe).

Into it all strides John Hodgkinson’s wonderfully repugnant (and rotund) Sir John Falstaff, who, a little down on his luck and penny both, casts his licentious gaze upon both Mistress Page and her affluent – not to mention similarly-married – bestie, Mrs Ford (Siubhan Harrison). When the duo catch on to Falstaff’s double down and scurrilous intent, they plot their revenge, and put into action a plan to teach the boor a lesson or three…

“…a canny reminder that Merry Wives often has its women calling the shots and holding the aces.”

McIntyre directs what is already a funny, witty piece with a punchy vibrancy. The abundance of cross purposes, mix-ups and manipulations come thick and fast, and it’s all set against Robert Innes Hopkins’ gorgeous, green staging. Characters are writ large and uniformly funny. Shazia Nicholls’ delightfully cockney and expressive Mrs Quickly, who has the ear of many in the town, busies about scenes like a hyperactive quasi-narrator, a canny reminder that Merry Wives often has its women calling the shots and holding the aces. Frank Ford is excellent, sympathetic and snivelling all as Ford’s desperately paranoid husband, who adopts an alter-ego in an effort to uncover his wife’s infidelities.

Of the two scheming wives, stage and screen veteran Spiro brings a little more dimension and spunk to her Mistress Page, where Siubhan Harrison’s Mrs Ford is a touch more levelled and demure. Given that the play occasionally alludes to notions of spousal abuse and domestic violence, and the occasional discomfort of Mr Ford’s overbearing suspicion and rage, it makes sense. Still, when the two women’s scheming takes flight, the chemistry between them is excellent. Scenes of the pair cracking up as they take devilish delight in their increasingly ridiculous bouts of revenge are utterly infectious.

“…amongst the most riotous, laugh-out-loud moments in recent RSC history.”

At the heart of all the mischief and mayhem is a bravura turn from John Hodgkinson as Falstaff. Imbued with a sense of self-importance, yet daring to tease edges of actual nobility and even sympathy, this is a bombastic, robust take on the character in every regard. Hodgkinson delivers a comedic masterclass, with some of the later sequences of Falstaff attempting to evade discovery by the town’s husband amongst the most riotous, laugh-out-loud moments in recent RSC history.

Depending on sensibilities, Wives may occasionally falter for some. As mentioned, much is made of Falstaff’s size in particular, and to contemporary audiences such regular, unabashed use of ‘fat’ as an insult may prick a nerve. It similarly shows its age come its forest-bound finale, which is fiendishly difficult to translate to a modern setting – though Hopkins and McIntyre give it a damned good go; positing its rabble of faux fae folk here as something akin to a toss up of youth mob and performance art both.

“…the laughs come thick and fast, but there are trickles of pathos in there, too.”

Whilst by no measure an especially deep or provocative piece, Wives does contain the odd moments that poke at deeper resonance and darker subtext. That it is delivered here by such a fine company, and with such fantastically realised characters means the laughs come thick and fast, but there are trickles of pathos in there, too.

Keenly directed, winningly performed, and sharply transforming what is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible and timely pieces into something of a riotously funny sitcom on stage, The Merry Wives of Windsor proves a delectable continuation of a strong year for RSC comedy, after their wondrous Midsummer Night’s Dream and the recent Love’s Labour’s Lost.

A superb, side-splitting slice of summery, suburban silliness, catch Merry Wives until September, as it shares the season with the upcoming School for Scandal.

The RSC romp home with another infectious, hilarious treat. McIntyre spins a merry tale with an impressive, animated ensemble, and offers up a slice of scandalous, summery suburbia too side-splitting to miss.

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