BWW Review: Stratford's THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Will Leave you with a Smile on your Face and an Ache in your side from Laughing
Opening week at the Stratford Festival came to a close on Saturday evening with director Antoni Cimolino's production of Shakespeare's THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Reimagined to take place in the early 1950's, this production is outrageously funny, with charming and distinctive performances by all involved.
This play tells the story of Mrs. Page (Brigit Wilson) and Mrs. Ford (Sophia Walker), who both receive the same love letter from John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies) and decide to concoct an elaborate and hilarious plan to teach him a lesson. A notoriously jealous Mr. Ford (Graham Abbey) also gets caught up in the ruse, making it even more entertaining for the merry wives. Wilson and Walker are clearly reveling in these juicy roles in the same way their characters are reveling in their game of wits. Their camaraderie with one another and with Lucy Peacock's Miss Quickly (who hilariously eats an entire meal throughout the course of the play) is fun to watch.
As close to pure farce as any of Shakespeare's plays, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR offers up several different styles of comedy that audiences with varying tastes can all enjoy. Cimolino's direction adds even more physical comedy to the mix. When what can only be described as 'Chekhov's bedpan' makes an appearance, everyone knows that there is no chance Graham Abbey's Mr. Ford is leaving the room without having an unfortunate mishap. A large portion of the comedy in the play comes from jokes about the size of Geraint Wyn Davies' Falstaff. It is so interesting to consider that in Elizabethan times, an obese man was a punch line in itself. I like to think this isn't the case today. It's true, Saturday night's audience was laughing, but I attribute this more to the situational humour and incredible physical comed--For example, quite literally everything involving the laundry basket was outrageously funny. I personally felt somewhat uncomfortable in the moments where other characters were laughing at Falstaff. The man is misguided and inappropriate, but I still felt for him and was happy to see him humbly accept that he had been fooled, acknowledge his misguided actions, and then be welcomed into the community at the end of the play. The sympathy for Falstaff, is a testament to the performance of Wyn Davies, who last played the character in the BREATH OF KINGS series a few years ago, and also performed this same role in the 2011 production of MERRY WIVES. He brings a wide-eyed naiveté and harmlessness to Falstaff, which allows us to see his humanity. The fact that he sees it appropriate to cast a wide net with his love letters, and send them to married women speaks more to his insecurity than it does to a disregard for the women he is courting. It appears as if he has truly learned his lesson by the end of the play, and it seems clear that he had truly never been taught such a lesson before.
This play offers an assortment of entertaining characters, made even more entertaining by the various styles of 1950's wardrobe that they all wear. Designer Julie Fox does well to create the world that these characters inhabit. Graham Abbey's performance as the rapidly unraveling Mr. Ford and Gordon S. Miller's hysterical turn as the French Dr. Caius are particularly memorable. Miller, who has been a member of the company for 13 seasons, is having himself a heck of a season between this role, and his fantastic portrayal of Iago in OTHELLO.
The music used in this play is original, with compositions by Berthold Carrière and lyrics by Marion Adler, but each song is cleverly familiar enough to a classic hit that it works very well to firmly place this play in the 1950's. It was also fun to hear some familiar voices from the Festival's company singing the various tracks!
Overall, this play was delightfully funny from beginning to end. The audience roared with laughter on many occasions and everyone seemed to leave with smiles on their faces. Whether you are a seasoned Shakespeare fan or a first timer looking for a solid 3 hours of laughter, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR would be an excellent choice!
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 26th.
Photo Credit: Chris Young