The Merry Wives of Windsor

William Shakespeare

Michael Bogdanov and Company at Ludlow Castle

(2002)

Review by David Adams

I have just seen one of the best mainstream productions (and possibly the best Shakespearean comedy) from a Welsh company in many a long year. And I had to see it in England.

Ludlow, admittedly, is not too far east of Offa's Dyke, but it did seem odd that this gem of a show, with a Welsh director and Welsh cast, should be funded from outside the country and presented for a predominantly English upper-middle class audience. Still, makes a change from dull English-style shows funded by the Welsh Arts Council presented in North Wales for a predominantly English middle-class audience....

Michael Bogdanov's specially-recruited company for this year's Ludlow Festival open-air production was, I guess, an embryo national theatre as much as Clwyd Theatr Cymru - just more exciting but without the resources or permanence. That said, what was impressive about this hugely enjoyable Merry Wives of Windsor was the ensemble performance within which just about every actor had the chance to excel individually.

And most did, some of them familiar faces who hitherto (we now realise) had possibly not been given the opportunity to show their comic talent. I'm thinking of a fine performer like Adrienne O'Sullivan, who grabs the role of Mistress Quickly with startling and entertaining enthusiasm, as well as recognised comic talents like Phylip Harries, who is a well-judged Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson that, one feels, offered a prototype for the many Welsh windbag characters that followed.

Ironically, of course, the verbally-challenged Sir Hugh is in this production one of a whole stageful of Welsh people - usually the character (Shakespeare seems to have regularly written plum parts for a Welsh actor in his troupe) stands out as a caricature Welshman, getting muddled over his English and waffling on. But now he has the same accent as Sir John Falstaff, Frank Ford, Shallow and most of others - even down to the would-be young lover Fenton. It sort of lessens the mild quasi-racism of the portrayal, leaving the French Dr Caius as the token foreign buffoon.

But one of the many delights of Bogdanov's intelligent as well as very funny production is the subtext about language and speech to be found in this, probably the least favourite of Shakespeare's comedies.

Otherwise, every last laugh is squeezed out of what we now see as a proto-feminist critique of male lechery, incompetence, mistrust, vanity and general waste-of-space uselessness. The ridicule of manhood is orchestrated by those merry wives, played with pert chick chic by Nicky Rainsford and Kathryn Dimery, while Ms O'Sullivan, whose Mistress Quickly pays undue attention to the more intimate parts of her client Falstaff, and Eve Myles, as the Ford teenage daughter desperate for the love of the upstanding Fenton (a winning performance from Morgan Rhys), embody the (fairly) liberated female.

Fine as Philip Madoc is as Falstaff, I must say I thought Russell Gomer stole the show as a maniacally jealous husband, no mean feat when Dorien Thomas is allowed to make free with the role of the French physician. Bill Bellamy, Brendan Chaleson and Ray Llewllyn were other familiar faces who made the most of their roles, but the cast as a whole (all 18 of them) showed just what is possible under good direction.

Thanks to Keith Morris of Theatre in Wales for permission to use this review.