Northern Broadsides certainly have a reputation for smashing the stereotype that northern actors can’t do Shakespeare. Not only do they frequently make this part of a production’s backbone by moving plays to northern locations, but they often do so with a great sense of energy that makes their take on the play all the more memorable. Now, for the third time, Barrie Rutter and co. have brought to the stage once more Shakespeare’s classic comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, dropping the latter part of the title in favour of moving the title up north.
In case you’re not familiar, The Merry Wives follows the story of Sir John Falstaff (Rutter), a fat knight who’s running out of money. In an attempt to obtain some, he attempts to court two of Windsor’s most wealthy wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson respectively). After sacking two servants who don’t want to comply with his greedy, lecherous intentions, they tell the husbands of the wives, one of whom seeks revenge. The wives themselves learn of Falstaff’s plans and begin to plot to teach him a lesson. Throw into the mix a subplot in which three men try to woo and win the hand of Mistress Page’s daughter, and you have The Merry Wives.
So there’s lots going on, and lots of narrative points to follow and keep track of amidst the chaos of Falstaff’s greedy attempts at wooing. For the most part, the company manages to keep this chaos in check, smoothly executing Shakespeare’s rich dialogue in their signature characterful northern accents. Yet, there are times when projection becomes an issue, and we lose plot points as the cast stumble over lines. Their words sometimes evaporate into the vacuum created by the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s cavernous Quarry Theatre.
The company don’t do much to alleviate such a performance challenge exclusive to this particular theatre which can quickly drain the undercurrent of energy that’s essential to such a text-heavy piece. This energy is often sustained through a play’s various atmospheres, something there’s an absence of here, due in large part to a lack of music. The only music we hear (apart from some during a jam at the end) is made up of some 1920s-esque pieces that play at the start of the play, as well as before and after the interval. This almost makes the production feel like a bit of a slog, as the actors valiantly try to blaze through Shakespeare’s text.
Only Rutter seems to carefully consider what he’s actually saying as Falstaff, projecting properly and forming a relationship with the audience. Many of the other actors in this piece seem to speed through their character’s dialogue, losing details about their emotional state. Having gone for the more traditional approach by not placing as much emphasis on the piece’s overall design aspects, it’s paramount that these performances are crafted down to a tee to create atmosphere and deliver the payoff of the comedy embedded within the narrative.
For example, it should be funny when we see the fat Falstaff fall into a laundry basket, but both Mistresses seem to play the situation rather than the truth of their characters. In doing so, we lose the payoff of this moment – and this general theme permeates throughout the production.
Having said all this, this production has its moments and is worth a watch. Sadly, however, the lack of a sense of truth and play is what really lets it down.
The Merry Wives is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 16 April and continues on tour. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.