The Merry Wives of Windsor

William Shakespeare

The Swan, Stratford-on-Avon

(2002)

Review by Steve Orme

With directors all over the country getting into the Christmas spirit for several weeks on end, theatregoers who are not fond of pantomimes or other seasonal offerings often have to stay at home and try not to take on the appearance or conduct of Scrooge.

So it’s good to know that the Royal Shakespeare Company are using the Swan Theatre in Stratford to stage the political drama Coriolanus and the delightful romp The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The RSC has been criticised in recent years for some of its radical productions which have made the Bard’s work almost unrecognisable. But Merry Wives is a prime example of what the RSC does best: taking a fresh look at a familiar play and presenting it with vitality and polish.

The play, Shakespeare’s only comedy set in England, has been updated to the late 1940s when the social climate was changing rapidly after World War II. Peter McKintosh’s frugal set and colourful costumes work admirably; hardly anything looks out of place.

It would have been easy for Merry Wives to degenerate into a farce in keeping with the festive period. But Rachel Kavanaugh’s tight direction means the production moves at a sprightly pace, extracting just the right amount of pathos as well as laughter.

Take, for instance, the character of Frank Ford who could become a figure of ridicule when he tries to prevent himself being cuckolded by Sir John Falstaff. Tom Mannion’s portrayal as an insanely jealous husband means we laugh at his situation and sympathise with his predicament.

There is tension and a sense of injustice between Fenton (Chuk Iwuji) and Anne Page (Hannah Young) when they realise her parents have other suitors in mind for their highly prized offspring.

And there is great chemistry between the wives themselves, Claire Carrie as the homely Alice Ford and Lucy Tregear as the elegant Meg Page.

But the star of the show is Dr Caius. Greg Hicks commands the stage whenever he appears, his officious manner and eccentric accent endearing him to everyone. His disclosure that he had been duped into marrying "un garçon" was a revelation.

There were commendable performances, too, from Alison Fiske, as the loveable busybody Mistress Quickly, and Adam Kay, a wet Abraham Slender who was one voucher short of a ration book as one of Anne Page’s suitors.

But any performance of Merry Wives stands or falls on Falstaff, the loveable rogue who was so popular with Queen Elizabeth I that she reportedly commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which the endearing fat bloke fell in love. Richard Cordery appears obese but is otherwise not particularly abhorrent nor lecherous and it seems strange that the two wives would want to take their revenge on him.
However, the audience warms to Cordery because of his facial expressions and almost boyish traits; he really came alive when he looked forward to the sexual pleasures he believed he was about to experience.

The intimate atmosphere of the Swan adds to the enjoyment, although it means fewer people can actually see the performance. If you can’t get tickets for Stratford, make it your new year’s resolution to see Merry Wives on tour.

Philip Fisher also reviewed this production when it arrived at the Old Vic