September 5, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
The Merry Wives of Whatsapp (Creation) @ Zoom
The basic set-up of The Merry Wives of Windsor feels tailor-made for lockdown, at least in Creation’s retelling by Olivia Mace and Lizzie Hopley. This tale of a busy, prying neighbourhood, all up in one another’s business and living for gossip, translates well to a modern suburban Whatsapp group populated by messages from Shallow about the bins. Here, two bored housewives, Meg Page (Hopley) and Alice Ford (Mace) are on constant Zoom/Facetime/phone calls with one another, sharing gossip, wine and plots, and living out an entire community drama through their shared dispatches from their own kitchens and living rooms.
Hopley and Mace are hilarious throughout as two women living their lives in one another’s pockets. Whether they’re asleep in bed with sleep masks on, doing their face in the bathroom, cooking in the kitchen, or dressing, they’re in constant communication, sharing an intimacy that one suspects is deeper than that with their much-mocked unseen husbands. There’s some lovely satire of middle-class life, with Alice complaining about her cleaner going to Magalouf and curtain steam-cleaning ‘not counting as an essential visit’, and Meg doing Latin With Joe Wicks while trying to get the kids up for school on a Sunday morning and getting ready for her next Yoga With Adriene. Alice in particular is amusingly posh, wrestling with a Dyson like she’s never touched one before, while Meg is earthier, downing a glass of wine before heading out to deal with Falstaff, and throwing herself into the wives’ schemes with a terrifying abandon.
The streamlined plot sees Falstaff (‘RandyKnight69′) sexting Meg and Alice out of the blue, to the two women’s shock. Showing each other his messages over Zoom, they decide to teach him a lesson and invite him over to Alice’s, before staging the return of Alice’s husband, forcing Falstaff out of the window and into a wheelie bin which Meg takes down to the river. A second date sees Falstaff dressed up in Alice’s cleaner’s dress and running away over neighbours’ fences. Finally, as the two women get to sit down and enjoy a shared watch of Normal People with some bubbly, Falstaff once again interrupts with mass messaging. The wives’ final trick aims to pre-emptively shame Falstaff, and summoning the neighbourhood children Falstaff is chased down the street by a bunch of kids in Hallowe’en costumes, before they call the cops on him for public indecency. Along the way, choice bits of the rest of Merry Wives get reported as the two women catch up on what they’ve heard about Caius and Evans having a duel.
The fun of this play is the script. Hopley and Mace’s dialogue is an intelligent reworking of the play, weaving in a surprising amount of detail and language to a thoroughly modern script, with too many good lines to recap here (though of course Falstaff makes prodigious use of the aubergine emoji). Meg in particular is not very adept at technology, and the semi-improvised joking as the two wrestle with their modes of communication, mute one another, juggle their household activities (especially Meg, with two kids always off-screen) feels genuine, capturing the essence of a long-time friendship/alliance. There are bits of sadness underpinning it, with both women having difficulty with their husbands at times, and the closeness of the bond between the two allows them to work through pain and conflict with each other through their shared humour. And when they’re planning the tricks against Falstaff, their nicely developed relationship comes into its own, with Meg stage-managing over the video while Alice dresses herself up and jumps at the sound of the door. As the schemes get more outlandish, they start having even more fun, Meg dressing up in military uniform to co-ordinate the gossips of Windsor against Falstaff. However, some of the choices work rather less well. As much as the two women repeatedly insist that they don’t agree with fat-shaming and tell each other off for mimicking French accents, the casual snide asides about their neighbours are a reminder of a little Britain riven with prejudices. And given the events of recent months, it’s hard to find two white women calling the police to arrest someone for their own amusement funny.
Creation’s playfulness with the interactivity of Zoom here turns the audience into fellow gossips, summoned into the group Zoom chat whenever the ladies need some back-up. At one point, Falstaff drops an ‘I am your Windsor stag’ message into everyone’s messages, and we are all brought on screen to raise our hands as victims. At another point, an unwitting audience member is cast as Mistress Quickly, a willing sap to read out lines that will entice Falstaff to Alice’s house. In one particularly risky moment, Zoom’s whiteboard feature is used to allow the audience to share ideas about what to do to Falstaff, which by miracle manages to stay relatively family-friendly (‘castrate the bastard’ sets the tone). The audience interactions are at best diversions, and at their worst occasionally slow down the performance, feeling a bit tacked on to the relatively polished duologue kept up the the two actors. However, the voyeurism that allows the production to suddenly peer into its audience’s living rooms feels very appropriate to the curtain-twitching gossiping tendencies of the two women, as they chat candidly about their audience’s choice of drinks and decor.
The production’s use of multiple forms of input covers the passage of time, with a ‘Falstaffcam’ providing a knight’s-eye view of his first encounter with Alice, and several pre-recorded sections (including Meg in a supermarket, and both Alice and Meg traipsing in the woods) interrupting the live material to allow time for costume changes. These pre-recorded clips – with the exception of Meg standing whimsically on the bank of the river showing where she deposited the wheelie bin – are a bit less essential, but the outdoor footage pays off brilliantly with the unexpected but inspired use of the famous ‘Fenton’ meme to stand in for George Page chasing after Fenton as he elopes with Anne (and there’s a nice joke at the end about Anne and Fenton needing to quarantine when they get back from Magalouf). While the production tries to pack in rather a lot, the disarming charisma of the two performers and the witty recreations of the play’s climate of nosy neighbours in the time of COVID keep this a consistently amusing entertainment.