August 26, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Merry Wives of Windsor @ Shakespeare’s Globe

So, finally, on to The Merry Wives of Windsor, the last of my three London plays this weekend and, in my opinion, the best. Not as inventive as Timon, nor as technically outstanding as Waves, it might seem an unlikely judgment, but Merry Wives did exactly what it said on the tin. By far the funniest production I’ve ever seen at the Globe, Christopher Luscombe’s new production made a convincing case for revisiting one of the more neglected plays in the canon.

This is actually the first straight Wives I’ve ever seen on stage, my only prior experience being the woeful BBC film and the sorely flawed Merry Wives: The Musical at the RSC. At first, I wasn’t convinced that this production was going to do a much better job. The play starts weakly with a dull conversation between three secondary characters, there’s a succession of seemingly endless introductions as the large cast of characters is introduced and the reappearance of characters from the Henry IV plays rely heavily on audiences recognising their foibles and catchphrases. It’s not an easy opening to a play, and this production correspondingly took a bit of time to get going. Once it did, though, it never stopped. This was the Globe at its most riotous, an almost pantomimic display of farce, action, daft accents, silly costumes, witty banter, knockabout humour and kiddies in fancy costumes. It’s the perfect play for the Globe space, and Luscombe delivered an ideal production that kept the audience in stitches.

A long walkway curved out from the stage, through the pit of the Globe to rejoin the stage at the other side, effectively bisecting the audience in the same way U2 have done on their two previous tours, complete with smaller "b-stage" right in the centre of the groundlings. There was a fair bit of scrummage to get into the privileged front bit, but the main advantage of the walkway was in fact that it improved audience sightlines all round, bringing the actors right into the middle of the crowd and allowing them to use the whole of the theatre. The "b-stage" became a location for more intimate scenes – to laughs from the audience, it revolved early on to reveal an entire garden scene complete with bench and flowers, in which Mistresses Ford and Page conferred and in which Fenton secretly wooed Anne. Against the tiring house was set a Tudor-style wooden structure with staircase, simple enough to effectively double as the Garter Inn and Ford’s house.

Luscombe’s company, many alumni of his Comedy of Errors at the Globe a couple of years back, were on fire throughout, playing well to the audience and displaying impeccable comic timing. The absolute highlights were Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as, respectively, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Refusing to go gracefully into late middle-age, the ladies were here childlike in their giggling tricks and whispered confabs, applauding each other always with a glint in their eye. The two scenes at Ford’s house were just wonderful, the two women ‘acting’ for Falstaff’s benefit: skipping around the stage, flapping arms comically, using all the standard melodramatic poses and shouting into the areas where Falstaff was hidden to make sure their words weren’t missed. The comedy of seeing these two housewives playing like little girls added greatly to the effect, lending these scenes a joyous sense of abandon.

Christopher Benjamin’s Falstaff was good sport throughout. Wisely, an actor had been chosen who was active enough to act past his best; thus, Benjamin entertained throughout his wooing of Mistress Ford by having his joints continually seize up, leaving him stuck on bent knee or hobbling sideways as he tried to get his back straight. Good-humoured throughout, he kept the audience onside by never letting the setbacks get him down, his humour always returning after a burst of righteous indignation. His willingness to be shown his own weaker side was shown in the finale, as he sat on a stump while the unmasked townsfolk of Windsor stared at him. Resigning himself to his foolery, he allowed himself to be led back along the walkway by one of the children, tacitly admitting to his own defeat without protest. Touches like this humanised Falstaff, keeping him sympathetic, someone we could laugh at and with without having to resort to cruelty. Whether preening in his best doublet and playing peekaboo with Mistress Ford or jovially taking Brook’s money, this was a Falstaff we could take equal pleasure in watching win or lose.

Ford, played excellently by Andrew Havill, was an even more interesting mixture. Channelling the spirit of Basil Fawlty (who occupied a prominent place in the programme notes), Havill played up Ford’s comic jealousy, making him the primary butt of the humour and justifying this through his lack of trust in his wife. As Brook, he wore a floppy yellow wig and bubbled up with silent shock and rage as Falstaff casually described his wife’s infidelities. As himself, his scenes of searching the house bordered on hysteria, particularly as he jumped into the Falstaff-less buckbasket to search the very bottom of the container. Yet, while we enjoyed watching him being made a fool as much as Falstaff, great pathos was wrought out of his reunion with his wife. Done movingly in the RSC’s version as well, I’m surprised to say that this is one of the few moments in Shakespeare that has never failed to move me, he taking his wife’s hand and gently asking her forgiveness, Havill making the contrition completely believable. From this moment on, Ford was very much part of the gang, moving all focus back to Falstaff as the object of humiliation. This production chose Ford to drive the plot, and it was his arc that gave the play its strongest sense of backbone, of a through line against which the antics of Falstaff, Evans, Caius et al. were played out.

Against these four excellent performances, it was surprising that anyone else was able to get a look in, yet there were great moments everywhere. Philip Bird had fun with an extreme French accent that relied heavily on "Buggers" and "Turds" (ie "by God" and "third") to get prolonged laughs out of the audience. Gareth Armstrong was less manic as Hugh Evans, but still got plenty of mileage out of his own funny accent and an excellent screaming fit when Caius confronted him for their duel. Jonty Stephens’ cockney Host presided throughout, never prominent but always part of the action, tying together various strands along with Mistress Quickly. Will Belchambers threatened to steal the show on several occasions as an obviously gay Slender, who was more than happy to find he had ended up with a boy at the wedding, and who struggled to talk to Anne at all when left alone, completely out of his depth with a woman.

The two and a half hour running time was brought about by some merciless cutting. Several of the small subplots and scenes (the Latin lesson, the Host’s horses) were removed, reducing the roles of Caius, Evans and the Host somewhat. Pistol and Nym disappeared after their reporting of Falstaff’s plans to Page and Ford (the actors doubling John and Robert, who here were the ‘boys’ that Caius and Slender found themselves lumbered with), and Bardolph was omitted entirely. These cuts served to tidy up the convoluted plotlines a great deal, but also struggled to justify the sheer amount of characters on stage (why not go one further and get rid of Simple and Rugby, who had almost nothing to do here?). However, the prominence of the main storyline is hardly unjustified (it is, after all, the Merry Wives’ show!), and the cast offered able comic support throughout, the extra storylines merely fun diversions.

The knockabout farce was well-executed; Ford’s beating of Falstaff was sufficiently painful-looking to make the appropriate impact on the audience, but rendered funny by Ford’s reappearance with a severely-bent poker, and John and Robert both pulled their backs trying to lift the loaded buckbasket before giving up and pushing it out. These scenes worked particularly well in the Globe space, the immediate proximity giving the cast plenty of opportunity to play up to audience reactions and pause to draw further laughs, acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situations before shrugging and carrying on. The finale at the old oak, however, was a bit weak, a song and dance number that saw children poking at the still Falstaff while the adult cast stood around the stage singing. After the set-up and the excellent physical comedy of earlier, it felt like a rather mild final humiliation. Still, it achieved the required effect and the children were excellent, joining in the choreography with gusto.

I’ve suggested before that the Globe’s natural atmosphere is one of comedy, and Merry Wives confirmed that. What is, basically, quite a silly play turned out to be a rich and endlessly funny afternoon in the sun, with even the simpler verbal humour drawing huge laughs. It’s likened in the programme to a sit-com, and in many ways I would completely agree – it’s easy comedy that an audience doesn’t have to work hard to enjoy, and it’s nice to find a production of a Shakespearean comedy that can genuinely keep a large audience in stitches. My personal highlight of an excellent Globe season, and hopefully a challenge to other directors to revisit this neglected play.

Posted in Theatre review