Sir John Falstaff, made popular in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, is no doubt one of Shakespeare’s most memorable, and most loved, characters, considered by many to be one of his finest literary creations.
Hugely popular among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Queen Elizabeth herself was “so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded [Shakespeare] to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love.”
Thus Shakespeare, in a stroke of genius, plucked his flawed knight errant, a source of comedy in his ‘Henry’, plays, and dropped him at the centre of a comedy, which could not be more different from his history plays. And yet it is a genre which lends itself so well, so naturally, to this farcical character who, now seated at the centre of his own farce, acts as a focal point from which riotous action revolves – and audiences love it.
In fact, it is with Queen Elizabeth’s commissioning of this play that the RSC’s production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ begins. An image of Elizabeth I is projected onto a screen, and she tells Shakespeare that he has two weeks to write for her a new play, centred around the character of Falstaff, to which Shakespeare exclaims – although I can’t vouch for historical accuracy here – “Oh my God!”. Nevertheless, he sets about his task, seeming pretty pleased with himself as he does…
This delightfully uplifting (and rather saucy) production is a heady cocktail of humour, wit, sarcasm, innuendo and physical comedy – all the ingredients necessary for the staging of a great Shakespearean farce. However, a modern adaptation, this show contains a few extra details that enable the play to seem up-to-date, whilst clinging to those aspects that ensured its initial success in Elizabethan times.
Tricks, jokes and japes aplenty, this spray-tanned, blow-dried production, steeped in suburban glamour, shows that ‘The Only Way Is Windsor’, and the RSC, whilst doing it, prove once more that the world of theatre really is their oyster.
Directed by Fiona Laird, the plot follows Falstaff as he attempts to seduce the wives of two wealthy men, in order to secure for himself a comfortable retirement, and he sends each of them identical love letters. Although uninterested in the overweight knight, these ‘merry wives’, Mistresses Ford and Page, pretend to respond to his advances, all the while plotting their revenge on the man whose presumptive behaviour threatens to destroy their honourable reputations.
A subplot sees Anne Page, daughter of Mistress Page, courted by three suitors – Slender, cousin to Shallow, a Justice of the Peace, French Dr Caius, and Fenton.
What is particularly interesting is that Elizabeth I remains present, in a way, throughout the production. Towards the back of the stage, a statue of Elizabeth stands, herself a member of the audience, watching the play that was created with her approval in mind. A nice nod to the play’s historical context, it subtly reminds us of this Queen, and her people, who watched as we watch today – entertained, amused, delighted, as we are today. Although modernised, updated for audiences of today, the play’s beginnings are firmly in mind, and the production represents a nice fusion of both past and present which, despite changes in such things as architecture, clothing, even diction, the eras remain similar in many ways, and we are able to find as much joy in this play as contemporaries of Shakespeare would have done 400 hundred years ago.
Few, but necessary, changes have been made to the language of Shakespeare – in keeping with the modernity of this adaptation. So subtle were these changes, sometimes additions, they are almost unnoticeable, but just ensure the production shows an awareness of its modern audiences. For instance, words such as ‘idiot’ are used, and the iconic laundry basket, within which Falstaff hides in the original text, has been updated to a wheelie bin here. However, despite said updates, the effect, both on play and audience, remains the same.
The set, designed by Lez Brotherston, bears the framework of two huge timber structures either side of the stage, one a house, the other, The Garter Inn, our characters’ local. Though representative of the typical Tudor architecture, the interiors are furnished with modern trappings, as with the bar and stools, along with the props, such as mobile phones and a BBQ, which are reflective of a modern day society, whilst the streets of the town bear a modern-day parking sign. Throughout the production, the structures are beautifully illuminated by Tim Mitchell’s lighting, whether this be in white, the colours of the French flag, or multi-coloured. A trap door in the centre of the stage is also utilised, in order to give the appearance of further locations. For example, a lawn often rises, upon which lounges Mrs Ford, ready to receive Falstaff. Pool steps are regularly placed at one end of the stage, and a pale blue light shimmers, to give the impression of the gentle lapping of water.
Brotherston’s superb costumes are further indicative of Elizabethan tradition that has been literally woven into the very fabric of modern dress. For instance, men are adorned in suits, hidden under a hose and and doublet. Ruffs adorn the necks and shoulders of some of our characters. There’s even the odd codpiece…
Fiona Laird’s music is in itself very clever, really exploiting the comedy already present. Not only does the music create moods and atmosphere – rather, it goes one step further. Several of the characters seem to have been given their own ‘theme tune’, or leitmotif, to use the correct musical term. Each time a certain character appears on stage, their entrance is heralded by their own personalised piece of music, suggestive of their character attributes, as with the romantic melody of Fenton, suitor to Anne, or the lower tones as our merry wives are plotting revenge against Falstaff.
At the beginning of the play particularly, we are introduced to this colourful host of characters, many of whom appear to their individual tune, whilst their names are projected onto a screen. Throughout the production, therefore, the music is able to play to audience anticipation, becoming an audible clue as to which character will be arriving on stage. The characters are all so different, and the music serves to enhance their individuality.
During this initial introduction, a great aid, given that there are several characters, and the existence of a subplot which adds to the play’s confusion, we get the opportunity to know the characters straight way and, for those that are familiar with the play, I doubt they will have needed much introduction. The ensemble has been cast perfectly, each embodying perfectly the virtues, and vices, their characters are known, and loved, for.
David Troughton is outstanding as Falstaff, truly magnificent; he portrays this character perfectly. Although a knight, and therefore technically of the highest social standing perhaps of all our characters, Falstaff is actually the most dishonourable, lacking all those qualities which one would think a knight, the embodiment of chivalry, should possess. An immoral character, a seriously flawed protagonist, Falstaff is largely given to pursuing base pleasures, and his reputation certainly precedes him. Troughton portrays all the vices of this character, his cowardice, even his strained physical exertion, the actor wearing a rather heft fat suit, and yet, he expertly maintains something of a charm, which at least appeals to the audiences, if not to the wives he seeks to seduce.
Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey are delightful as our two ‘merry wives’, Mistresses Ford and Lacey respectively. ‘The Real Housewives of Windsor’, these middle-class, ladies of leisure, parade around in their glamorous attire – that is, when not in dressing gowns, waddling around the stage with bejewelled toe separators. After both receiving identical love letters from Falstaff, the only difference being their names, at which Mistress Page suggests that he probably has a hundred such letters to hand, bearing blank spaces, where he would write the names of the ladies he desired at any given moment, the two women join forces in concocting a plot of revenge against him. Together, they truly are a force to be reckoned with – and are able to outwit Falstaff, ultimately triumphing over him. Unbeknownst to Falstaff, the women are the true orchestrators of the action, and together set in motion the chain of events that see the knight justly punished. Just as he had planned to use these women for his own ends, the women instead take it upon themselves to ensure this character receives his just desserts. However, far from harbouring a dark and malicious intent, these women playfully hope to curb his immoral behaviour by teaching him a lesson, having enormous fun whilst doing it. Unlike Falstaff, these are honourable protagonists.
Although Karen Fishwick’s Anne Page is not a major character within the play – she is alluded to several times, although we do not see her as often – but her role is nevertheless a significant one. Anne has three suitors – her mother wishes her to marry Jonathan Cullen’s respectable French Dr Caius, a man of wealth, reputation, and good social standing, whose frequent mispronunciation of English is a source of comedy, while her father wishes for her to marry Tom Padley’s tight-trousered ‘geezer’ Slender, cousin to Tim Samuel’s excellent Shallow, Justice of the Peace. However, Anne is in love with young gentleman Fenton, dashingly portrayed here by Luke Newberry, and he with her. In fact, she loves him so much, she marries him at the end of the play, without her parents consent, without even their knowledge. In addition, she deceives her parents into thinking that she is marrying each of their choices of suitor, instead sending another in her place, whilst she marries Fenton – a touching, and modern, celebration of headstrong and unyielding love, true love. When it comes to love, Anne is forward-thinking, as was Shakespeare.
Ishia Bennison is delightful as Mistress Quickly who, although of a lower social class than the wives, clear from her apron and the rubber gloves hanging around her waist, she is willing to act as go-between, conveying their messages to Falstaff. However, she also plays an important part in our subplot – each of Anne’s three suitors pay her (though not enough, it would seem, judging by her rather disappointed “oh…” upon payment) to further their cause, and she agrees to help all three. Therefore, she becomes a source of reassurance for all characters – all confide in her, rely on her, all look to her for help.
Josh Finan excels as Nym, follower of Falstaff. However, when Falstaff asks Nym to convey a letter to one of the wives, Nym honourably refuses, alongside Afolabi Alli’s Pistol, another of Falstaff’s followers. Falstaff responds by sacking them and they, in their turn, tell Mr Ford and Mr Page of Falstaff’s plan to seduce their wives. At the end of the play, when it is discovered that Anne Page has tricked her parents, both Slender and Doctor Caius storm onto the stage. Slender declares that a boy was sent in Anne’s place. The Doctor arrives just a moments later – but it is a few moments too late – it appears he has married his boy. However, in an unexpected yet nice twist, in keeping with modern values, the Doctor seems pleased, and the two share a passionate kiss, and it is expected that they will remain married.
This may have been potentially problematic in Shakespeare’s day, such a marriage perhaps being deemed invalid, however today, such is the norm, and modern day audiences are able to rejoice in this happy ending for two additional characters, alongside in the overall resolution – in which all seems forgotten, and forgiven, the marriage of Anne and Fenton accepted, with Mistress Page inviting all characters, Falstaff included, to join her at her house.
Gender is also experimented with, as Bardolph and the Host have been recast as women, Charlotte Josephine taking on the role of Bardolph, and Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter. In a play that was commissioned by a woman, for a woman – perhaps one of the most powerful women in our history, Elizabeth I, who described herself as having ‘the heart and stomach of a king’ – it is a wonderful touch, a fitting tribute, to recast some of these characters as female, and the actors tackle these roles admirably, with as much gusto, their roles as significant, as any male predecessors, roles that may not have existed without the demand of a woman. Shakespeare’s language is so powerful, the RSC once again prove that gender is of little importance when it comes to who is delivering his lines – they remain as powerful.
Jealousy plays an interesting part in the piece. Vince Leigh’s Mr Ford, on learning of Falstaff’s intentions regarding his wife, becomes very jealous. His view is very different to that of Paul Dodds’ Mr Page, who clearly trusts his wife implicitly, secure in his relationship, and the difference between the two men’s responses is notable.
The jealousy we see here, however, is very different to that seen in later play ‘Othello’, for example. Here, Othello bears a dark, deep-seated sexual jealousy, that ultimately has tragic consequences. Othello is a very serious play and, though with few humorous moments, is not to be mocked. It is a play that moves audiences and, depending on production, unsettles.
Othello’s very real, very serious jealousy, unfortunately proves to be his downfall – although fuelled by his own insecurities, external forces, in the guise here of Iago, plant seeds of doubt, of suspicion, leading to a dangerous jealousy, giving way to a bitterness. Thus, although jealousy is a theme running through both plays, the effect each has on their audiences is so different, this play created purely for enjoyment.
Ford’s jealousy, although similarly stemming from distrust, is a source of humour, not only for audiences, but even for other characters, most notably his wife, and the Pages, who cannot understand the basis for his distrust. His jealousy is there to be mocked, to be laughed at.
Towards the end of the play, the ‘merry wives’ tell their husbands what they’ve been up to, again showing themselves more than worthy of their trust. Ford realises how foolish he has been, a fact the other characters were well aware of, showing himself to be a man that can be reasoned with.
In the play, as in all of Shakespeare’s works, there are very few stage directions, so this play allows for much scope with regards to physical comedy. Directors have free reign when it comes to staging, and the gaps between dialogue here are filled with so many moments of slapstick comedy, that perfectly emulate what is being said, and so many extra moments of humour are thus added, all of which the cast perform masterfully, as Shakespeare’s implied humour manifests itself in the best, and funniest, way.
Although often criticised, considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, it is easy to see why ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ remains so popular. Although very different to Shakespeare’s other plays, particularly his histories, this production makes no bones about what it is trying to be. It IS a comedy, and the purpose of a comedy is to bring joy to people, to entertain, and to make people laugh. This production does just that, and you should see it for this reason, if nothing else.
This modern adaptation is sure to bring in new audiences, and will continue to do so, until the sky rains potatoes, and it thunders to the tune of Greensleeves.