The Merry Wives Of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare’s most commonly produced plays – but if the current production at Shakespeare’s Globe is anything to go by it should give producers pause for thought when planning their annual summer Shakespeare treat.
Regularly opting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (also coming up at The Globe this season) for its comedy of mistaken identity, fairy shenanigans and accessible comedy subplot, those producers would find all of the above in the Globe’s production of the Merry Wives – though admittedly the youthful love and playful, magical sprites of the Dream are replaced here with an ageing attempt at seduction and a woodland of artificial fairies.
At its heart, The Merry Wives Of Windsor tells the tale of the corpulent Sir John Falstaff’s attempts to seduce Mistresses Page and Ford – the two merry wives of the title – with a parallel subplot of the battle between three variously-preferred suitors to Mistress Page’s daughter.
What follows is a series of attempted seductions between Falstaff and Ford, carefully orchestrated by the merry wives to both derail Falstaff’s attempts and to teach Mistress Ford’s jealous husband a lesson.
Channelling everything from Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby to Kenneth Grahame’s Mister Toad (the escape from prison dressed as a washer-woman?).
Pearce Quigley’s Falstaff is a joy – working the audience with immaculate comic timing and more than a threat of a beer-soaked front row.
Also notable among a strong cast is Jude Owusu as the jealous Master Ford, seeking to dupe Falstaff into enabling him to catch his wife in the act of infidelity, but finding himself duped into the bargain.
The Globe can be a challenging venue acoustically – situated on a flight path so battling regular planes flying overhead, and subject to the weather which can variously carry sound towards or away from the audience – but this production uncovers and relishes every joke, physical or verbal (and adds a few of its own), which means that lines lost to the elements make little difference to the experience. Missed the last joke? The next one will be along in a minute.
Director Elle While and designer Charlie Cridlan have chosen to set the show in the 1930s – a time when the economic lines between the middle classes and the aristocracy were increasingly blurred.
Falling land values threatened the security of the ruling classes, while the middle classes benefited from increasingly successful trading conditions – so characters like the knight Falstaff could find themselves seeking the financial stability of the likes of the Fords and the Pages.
However, whilst the design seeks to ground the show in the inter-war years, this is fundamentally a timeless tale, a satirical commentary on the vanities of the fallen rich and a picture of a world where the female and the young easily defeat the male and the old.
The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Shakespeare’s Globe until 12 October
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