The Merry Wives of Windsor gets an Essex makeover complete with a shot of reality TV in Fiona Laird’s adaptation filled with big hair, fake tans and good times. Shakespeare’s comedy is the story of the lascivious Sir John Falstaff (David Troughton) who comes to Windsor short of money and seeks to court the wealthy and married Mistress Ford (Beth Cordingly) and Mistress Page (Rebecca Lacey) to improve his finances. When the two discover that he has sent them identical love letters, they decide to have a bit of fun with him and antics ensue.
The transposition of the story from the small town of Windsor to the moneyed suburbs of Essex is a smooth one. The play is littered with nods to the reality TV genre that make the transposition feel more like a match made in heaven than a glitter filled gimmick. Laird’s adaptation features a classic opening credits scene à la The Real Housewives which typically features a myriad of characters with sometimes tenuous links to each other, a dynamic not dissimilar from the town of Windsor upon Essex. There is something magically ridiculous about seeing the opening credits performed on stage in real life.
There’s also the classic deep conversation in a luxurious setting scene another reality TV staple, which occurs between Mistress Paige and Mistress Ford in a neon pink laden spa during a manicure. The melange of glitter, patterns you would see standing in a queue for the Sugar Hut, iPhones and tiny dogs, highlights the closeness of the high drama of reality TV and the play’s farcically bawdy plot lines. The set, more of a homage to quaint small-town life, could have done with a bit of the Brentwood treatment and a bit less “flossing”.
Lacey and Cordingly excel as the dynamic duo of Mistress Paige and Mistress Ford, the razor-sharp BFFs who take no nonsense from their husbands or unsavoury suitors. The delicious hamminess of their fake acting during the infamous ‘wheelie bin’ scene is devoured by audience members. Troughton is a gift as the slimey John Falstaff, oozing with lechery – his enunciation of the word “cuckold” in the face of Brooke particularly biting. The physicality of his performance and the incorporation of his borderline ridiculous fat suit sells Falstaff’s seediness and unwanted and uncontainable testosterone. Jonathan Cullen’s Dr Caius also elicits many well-deserved laughs along with the beloved clergyman of Windsor Sir Hugh Evans (David Action). The secondary plot of the marriage of Anne Page, despite allowing the audience to witness the hilariousness that is Tom Padley’s Slender, is largely forgettable.
Laird’s adaptation is yet more evidence that Shakespeare can keep up with ever-changing modern culture, and entertain younger audiences. The Merry Wives of Windsor proves that there is no ‘only way’ to perform Shakespeare.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is playing at the Barbican until January 5. For more information, click here.