I’ve never seen Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and I’ve still not seen it! What I saw at the Rose was The Merry Wives and they no longer come from Windsor! They have been moved ‘up North’. The wives now hail from Whitby or a similar northern town. The play has also moved centuries. It is now set in the 1920s and the ladies and gentlemen are sporty, wealthy, middle class northerners, complete with flat caps and even more flattened vowels. Does it work? Yes it does.
According to legend, Elizabeth I saw ‘Henry IV Part I’ and loved the character of Falstaff and asked Shakespeare to write another play about him. She gave Shakespeare 14 days to complete it. It is not Shakespeare’s greatest work – for a start it is all written in prose and it is a funny, revenge romp, but it does show life in Shakespeare’s time and we see the real people of England, not just the Kings, Queens and nobles of other plays. There is no war, death or tragedy but instead there is virtue, good humour and compassion. Characters show their flaws – Ford is jealous; Page and Mistress Page do not listen to their daughter; Falstaff is deluded about his sexual prowess, but they are all reconciled and forgiven. The Merry Wives is one of Shakespeare’s most farcical works – there is slapstick, cross dressing, physical and linguistic jokes and yet there is a softness and kindness there that Shakespeare perceives so well in humanity. Poor Slender, for example, beautifully played by Jos Vantyler, captures our hearts despite being foolish and weak.
The story in a nutshell is that Sir John Falstaff, who is in need of money, decides to seduce two wives to gain their husbands’ money. They are much too clever for him and lead him into a series of meetings designed to humiliate him. The husbands are both informed of Falstaff’s planned seductions and Ford (vividly played by Andrew Vincent) becomes wildly jealous but later learns to trust his wife. At the same time, the daughter, Anne Page, is being pursued by three suitors: Caius (a French doctor, played enthusiastically by Andy Cryer and favoured by Mistress Page); Slender (a fool, favoured by Page); and Fenton (the man Anne loves). Being a comedy, the ending is not difficult to predict!
Barrie Rutter both directs this production and plays Sir John Falstaff and, although there are moments of great humour, I generally felt very sad for the poor, old, deluded man. The characters who were very funny in their interplay were the two wives. Mistress Ford (Becky Hindley) and Mistress Page (Nicola Sanderson) shone in this production. The fun they were clearly having, both in and out of character, was contagious. They were totally believable, strong women who were never in danger of succumbing to a fool such as Falstaff.
The laundry basket scene was the highlight of the evening and the staged conspiratorial planning and enactment of the plot of the two merry wives was like a Carry On film. Dirty washing flying into the audience will not be forgotten.
This was a happy romp through the northern countryside. Perhaps you can see touches of Shakespeare’s other plays here: Falstaff’s delusions in King Lear; Ford’s jealousy in Othello; the manic fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but as a stand-alone comedy, it was fun. The line I came away with was ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest yet’ – a kind, gentle line in an enjoyable play.
Review by Valerie Cochrane
Sir John Falstaff is past-his-prime and skint!
Vain rogue that he is, he attempts, rather clumsily, to seduce a couple of well-to-do wives … but Mistress Page and Mistress Ford get wise to his plan and scheme to exact revenge with hilarious and unimaginable consequences.
If you like your Shakespeare light, funny and wickedly entertaining then look no further. The Merry Wives is bursting at the seams with verbal fun, physical comedy and a bevy of cunningly colourful characters.
Northern Broadsides’ distinctive charisma and zest for performance squeezes every last ounce of comedy gold from this affectionately calamitous tale that will tickle your funny bone and poke a jovial finger in the eye of middle England.
The Merry Wives
Directed by Barrie Rutter
Presented by Northern Broadsides, in partnership with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Rose Theatre Kingston
Tue 22 Mar – Sat 26 Mar