Theatre review: The Merry Wives of Windsor - RSC Live

The Merry Wives of Windsor - RSC Live

Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Fiona Laird
Cast: David Troughton, Beth Cordingly, Rebecca Lacey, Vince Leigh, Katy Brittain, Jonathan Cullen, Tom Padley, David Acton, Ishia Bennison, Paul Dodds, Karen Fishwick, Luke Newberry
RSC Live
12 September 2018

It's certainly possible to look for deeper themes in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, whether as a parody of suburban life and morals, a reflection on class in society or as a poignant recognition of generational change where the old make way for the new, and perhaps there's even a tinge of regret (or glee - it depends how you look at it) for the chivalrous ways of the landed gentry having to cede traditional positions of wealth and privilege to a coarse aspirational newly wealthy middle class. Whether those are really the principal themes of the play or whether it's just inevitable that Shakespeare can't help but provide insight into people and society, the fact remains that The Merry Wives of Windsor is an outrageously silly comedy and its main aim is surely just to make you laugh.

Even the circumstances of the writing of the play bear this out, Shakespeare commissioned to write a sequel (or prequel) featuring Sir John Falstaff, having killed off this popular comic figure in Henry IV Part II, and reportedly dashing off The Merry Wives of Windsor in a couple of weeks on royal command. Make no mistake about it, there's little that is sophisticated about the plotting, the broad characterisation, the rude puns and jokes, the comedy Welsh and French accents. If there's anything sophisticated about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it's possibly that Shakespeare takes the opportunity to let it act as a kind of corrective to the mistreatment of women in earlier comedies like The Taming of the Shrew. Here the tables are very much turned around and it's the women who make fools of the men.

There's a little cruelty in that kind of comedy (as there was also with The Taming of the Shrew, so fair's fair), so it's definitely wise to play the play as broadly as possible so that you don't mistake any of the actions as being offered as a realistic depiction of how to deal with such matters. So, yes it's a little despicable that Sir John Falsfaff thinks so highly of himself in his current impoverished, dishevelled and rotund shape that he believes his titled status alone is enough to make him irresistible to the wealthy married ladies of Windsor, but the behaviour of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in mocking and subjecting him to ridicule is surely as unjustified as the suspicion and neglectful behaviour of their husbands. Unjustified yes, but definitely funny.

It's also funny because, intentionally or despite itself, the play does hit on the reality of social and generational change. Shakespeare doesn't even make the effort to retain Sir John in the period of Henry IV where he first appeared, but clearly sets the play in his own Elizabethan period, reflecting the divisions in society and the kind of class struggles that were prevalent at the time. As such, it's been a long-standing tradition to retain a more contemporary or up-to-date setting for The Merry Wives of Windsor because, inevitably with Shakespeare, even in a comedy that is as crude as this one, his plays still very much reflect eternal themes in people, life and society.

And it certainly helps give the play a little more of an edge and meaning if it's played in a contemporary setting with recognisable character types. Since they still speak in Elizabethan terms, Fiona Laird's production manages to mash-up the Elizabeth I period with the Elizabeth II, having the characters deliver their lines and complicated romantic situations in the manner of The Only Way Is Essex, making it a case of The Merry Wives of Essex or The Only Way is Windsor, if you will. And, although it still feels like very much dumbed down Shakespeare, the play is very dumbed down Shakespeare. If Shakespeare were alive today, subject to the demands of commercial television and not getting credit for his more ambitious dramatic endeavours, you could imagine that this is the kind of thing he would be doing and still finding a way to make subtle - or perhaps not so subtle - commentary or satire on contemporary society.

Other than the superficial modern adornments and trappings of aspirational Essex housewives, with the Elizabethan costumes and houses suitably blinged up, the emphasis in Laird's production is not so much on satire (this kind of thing is quite capable of satirising itself) as very much on making the play as funny as possible. It resorts to slapstick - something I'm sure that Shakespeare wasn't adverse to himself - as well as funny French accents that make 'ears' sound like 'arse'. Sir John's indignant protests of being unceremoniously dumped in 'A wheelie-bin!' rather than a laundry basket requires some minor adjustments of the text, but the impact this has shows that it is clearly merited if the emphasis is on the comedy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor also clearly works better when the actors are given as much leeway to play their characters as broadly as possible. The larger-then-life figure of Sir John Falstaff to be the butt of all the jokes obviously calls out for that kind of treatment whichever play he is in, and that's provided here by a superb David Troughton. There's also great comedy to be derived from the highly exaggerated performances of Katy Brittain as The Hostess of the Garter and Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, and some fine conspiratorial interplay from Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.

If indeed The Merry Wives of Windsor is to be seen as a kind of corrective to The Taming of the Shrew, the broad comedy does however make the women's actions towards the fat knight and all that he stands for seem rather cruel. Anne's marriage to Fenton however leaves the play on a more optimistic note that the next generation may be less inclined to abide by the class and social rules of the previous generation; a view from the late 16th century that, to judge by today's even more egoistic and materialistic concerns so perfectly satirised in the RSC's production, would appear to have been one area where Shakespeare's hopeful and optimistic view of humanity appears to have fallen wide of the mark.

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