The Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare
The Guildford Shakespeare Company
Guildford Castle Gardens

Michael Geary as Falstaff Credit: Tony Green
Sarah Gobran and Johanne Murdock as the Merry Wives Credit: Tony Green

Reputedly written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who so much enjoyed the antics of Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV that she wanted to see more of the lovable old rascal, this play is an endurance test for anyone brave enough to take on the role. Michael Geary comes through with flying colours suffering being stuffed into a laundry bag, being dumped in the river (happily offstage), beaten with a broom and pinched and prodded by ‘fairies’.

A hypodermic needle also makes an appearance—not something occurring in the original. He swaggers through it all, drinking copious amounts of beer, and with his character so sure of his charms he truly believes that two respectable wives are longing to have an illicit affair with him—he, of course, is really after their husbands‘ money.

Being in the year of our Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, the company has set the production in June 1953 on the morning of her coronation. Two dutiful wives are ironing as they see their husbands off to work (or possibly the golf course) and, in a whirl of frenzied activity, every character enacts their day at high speed, which must have led to fun and confusion at rehearsal.

Caroline Devlin, who directed the very successful Richard III earlier this year and the tremendously impressive and atmospheric Hamlet last year, has shown equally meticulous attention to detail in this glorious, high-speed comedy and created a production you could see many times taking in difference nuances of meaning and expression each time. The text is spoken as written, but with extravagant gestures and body language creating extra hilarity, and the cast (who in Shakespearean style never make use of microphones) have perfected the art of projection, their voices ringing out clear and true across the open spaces, and seemingly without effort.

Falstaff’s Big Mistake is to send identical love letters to Mistress Page (Johanne Murdock) and Mistress Ford (Sarah Gobran) who of course compare notes and, convulsed with laughter, plan revenge. Confusing and / or enhancing the plan is jealous husband Frank Ford (Morgan Philpott), and adding to the perplexity of the plot there are three suitors for the hand of the Pages’ lovely daughter Anne (Katy Phipps). Her mother favours Dr Caius, her father wants Abraham Slender, and Anne’s heart is set on young Master Fenton.

Matt Pinches is Fenton, but also—true to form—is gloriously funny as the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans. Jack Bannell is ‘upper-class twit’ Slender and switches to the sensible and helpful Host of the Garter Inn, and Alex Scott Fairley is US sailor friend Pistol and a riot as the French Dr Caius, desperately trying to get his calming injection into the jealously-crazed Ford and hitting the wrong man.

I was quite surprised to find that Louise Best has not yet graduated from the Guildford School of Acting as her performance as the matchmaker Mistress Quickly was confidently assured, great fun and very professional.

Snippets of fifties songs are played throughout, each one comically relevant to the action (sensuous tango when ‘love’ is in the air) and, in keeping with the Jubilee spirit a boisterous Rock ‘n’ Roll number to “Sing, Sing, Sing” ended the performance on a Very High Note.

You could not have a more exhilarating fun-filled evening than this, performed by a young, enthusiastic and energetic cast—a joyous celebration of life with all ending happily—and nobody dies. Also, it didn’t rain. Terrific!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor