Shakespeare’s Globe’s indoor tour of their highly successful and popular production of The Merry Wives of Windsor arrived at Richmond on the day of the first snow of winter and there couldn’t be a better pre-Christmas treat than Christopher Luscombe’s breezy and utterly charming staging.
Merry Wives seems to only occupy a very minor place in the Shakespearean canon, considered by many scholars to be too trivial to be interesting. I disagree- this isn’t exactly social realism about everyday Elizabethan life, but I think it’s fascinating to get an insight into the kind of provincial society that Shakespeare himself grew up in. Its semi-obscure status makes it doubly refreshing as, firstly, it hasn’t been done to death and secondly, it’s genuinely funny (humour becomes dated far more quickly than anything else) and full of good lines (“Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy!”) and physical comedy.
Much has been made about this play as an argument for putting Shakespeare forward as the precursor of the modern domestic sitcom. Falstaff, perhaps somewhat like the great sitcom monsters Basil Fawlty or Hyacinth Bucket doesn’t have many redeeming features. He has an overly inflated sense of his own importance and attractiveness and thinks he’s much cleverer than he is, and yet he’s still lovable. What he has got is a huge amount of energy, something which is immensely appealing. Christopher Benjamin (Sir William ‘Capital, Capital!’ Lucas in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) imbues this irascible rogue with deliciously fruity intonation and plenty of warmth as well as the oily charm.
As the wives themselves Sarah Woodward and Serena Evans are the most extraordinary sister act as Mistresses Ford and Page, with their razor-sharp timing in which they fully ham up the pretence that they’ve created and make it seem utterly natural. This is a town where these shrewd, acerbic ladies are very much in control. Andrew Havil’s Ford (who disguises himself in a wig much like his future son-in-law’s hairstyle) does an excellent line in outraged, in which the word ‘cuckold’ is worse than any kind of blasphemy.
Sue Wallace is a warm and motherly presence as the go-between Mistress Quickly who doubles up as Gloriana in the ‘fairy pageant.’ As Falstaff was apparently Queen Elizabeth’s favourite character, part of me wishes that Falstaff had proposed to her at the end. The slightly star-crossed lovers Anne Page and Master Fenton are sweetly portrayed by Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Gerard McCarthy, alongside Anne’s other suitors, the Frenchman Dr Caius (Philip Bird) as the sexually ambivalent Slender (William Belchambers), who ends up much happier with another man.
Costume and set designer Janet Bird offers plenty of vibrant outfits, which include lots of colourful doublets and hose and huge ruffs that make modern clothes seem so dull. The music by Nigel Hess is a joy, which everyone came out humming.
Merry Wives doesn’t seem to appear on many reading lists and it’s true that the scope for essay questions is probably rather limited. However, I’ve never laughed at a production of, say, Twelfth Night or As You Like It (let’s face it, Feste and Touchstone are unlikely to ever bring about hysterics) nearly as freely as I fell about laughing over Falstaff’s misadventure in the laundry hamper. What a mercy public transport wasn’t cancelled due to the snow.
(Postcript: After my friend and I shivered and giggled our way back to the station, I found myself on the last Overground train home sitting opposite Falstaff himself (and several other cast members). Jane Austen’s Sir William Lucas couldn’t have hoped to have been portrayed by a finer gentleman than Mr Christopher Benjamin.)