Barbican Centre, London – until 5 January 2019
The Merry Wives of Windsor is often looked-down-upon as a casual piece of throwaway entertainment lacking substance or serious intent, with little for scholars to get their teeth into. However, this is a play whose time is surely coming again: a Shakespeare in which the leads are played by women who drive the plot and control the action has an almost unique appeal. And it is genuinely funny, a quality brought out with delightful energy in the RSC’s current version, now transferred from Stratford to the Barbican.
The most immediately striking aspect of Fiona Laird’s production is Lez Brotherston’s set, which features the timber skeletons of two Tudor buildings, with parking and tourist-board signs subtly locating them in the 21st century. Not only do they rotate to supply interiors and exteriors, they also glow in exceptionally tacky rainbow colours, This is Windsor via The Only Way is Essex which, with reality TV the soap operas of today, makes sense.
Brotherston’s costumes are also a treat, combining doublets with suits, Elizabethan lace collars with rugby shirts and brocade bodices with patterned leggings. Meanwhile, we know Falstaff is out of his depth by the MCC blazers and Union Jack waistcoats he wears, belonging to a different world.
The performers are right behind the concept, delivering a succession of comic treats. The two conspiring wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, who set up and humiliate Falstaff three times in a row, are played with Essex verve by Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey, who have a particularly good time acting out conversations the benefit of the concealed Falstaff in hilariously wooden style. Katy Brittain also stands out as the merrily drunken Hostess of the Garter Inn, who enjoys herself more than everyone else put together, always clad head-to-toe in leopard print.
David Troughton gives a subtle and compelling performance as Falstaff, who simply cannot understand why he is the butt of the jokes. Troughton plays him as an alcoholic who thinks he is on top of things but is only barely connected to reality. He is venal, violent and self-obsessed but, like any comic victim, the audience cannot help but feel sorry for him.
The production does have its weaknesses. Every RSC show these days seems to require a lengthy, pointless preamble, perhaps to avoid panicking the audience with difficult dialogue upfront. Laird gives us a full set of introductions to the cast, who then go on to introduce themselves anyway in Shakespeare’s text, and a film of Elizabeth I commanding the play to be written, a theory that the production’s own programme thinks is a myth. It also seems wrong that the final scene around Herne’s Oak in Windsor Great Park, which opens the play beyond the inward-looking Tudor suburbia, is relocated to a statue in the town square, presumably for convenience.
However, this is an excellent production with a seriously watchable cast. Merry Wives is a play that deserves to be taken seriously. It is highly unusual in Shakespeare’s canon in that it is almost entirely in prose and concerns middle-class characters (and their servants) with no hint of the aristocracy, other than Falstaff himself, and no mention of politics. It is a straightforwardly funny play, without the usual distractions of a Shakespeare comedy, and highly accessible. It is also full of insight into the lives of ordinary people and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, just as Shakespeare intended.