BWW Review: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, Barbican
East meets west, as the RSC's latest production of Shakespeare's comedy gets a TOWIE makeover. Following a popular summer run at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Stratford-upon-Avon base, it transfers to the Barbican for a limited engagement over the winter. David Troughton stars as the infamous knight Falstaff, who is at the peak of his lecherous and womanising ways during the course of this play - until he meets his matches in Mistresses Ford and Page.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is an incredibly multi-threaded play, even by Shakespeare's standards, with various subplots of varying importance - ranging from the marrying off of young Anne Page, to a bizarre feud between a French doctor and Welsh parson, and the comings and goings of Bardolph, Nym and Pistol. The heart of the story, however, sees the titular wives (Ford and Page) seeking to humiliate their husbands as well as the amorous Falstaff, going to extreme lengths to make their point.
Queen Elizabeth I supposedly commissioned Shakespeare to write a new play featuring Falstaff, a beloved character of hers, and the result was this. Interestingly, the production uses this trivia to begin proceedings; it works well in introducing the vast array of characters one by one, however the conceit is dropped from thereon in and not specifically referenced again.
The mash-up of sensibilities extends to Lez Brotherston's designs, with blinged up Tudor-influenced costumes and mock Tudor buildings occasionally emboldened with neon lighting. Though you could argue that events technically take place in the reign of Henry IV, Shakespeare's writing itself pays deference to middle class Elizabethan life rather than looking back to the 15th century, so it doesn't particularly matter.
In a first for the RSC, Fiona Laird is not only the director but the composer for the production too. It's an interesting combination of roles, but really helps to maintain a conceptual focus; the score, inspired by commercial fare that's blasted from car radios in the Essex region, is played on instruments as diverse as the shawm, crum horn and electric guitar. As well as keeping the fusion idea going, it doesn't distract the audience from the onstage action.
It is a rather ridiculous play that is gamely embraced by the large cast, providing several very memorable performances. Karen Fishwick makes for a brilliantly bratty Essex girl, doing her best to pout and scream her way out of two unwanted marriage proposals. Vince Leigh impresses as the jealous Ford, all Alice bands and designer jeans, with a special mention for his alter ego, Mr Brook - those scenes are some of the most hilariously acted in the play, from the comical disguise to the husband's fury almost blowing his cover on numerous occasions. Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey definitely run the show as Mistresses Ford and Page, their hilarious plots and schemes showing the men who's really in charge.
David Troughton is perhaps most associated with the more serious and tragic Shakespearean roles, so it's a true thrill to see him tackle the role of the "fat knight", Sir John Falstaff. To me, there are hints of the likes of Henry VIII and Boris Johnson in his appearance and performance - it definitely does a good job of highlighting some of the worst aspects of men. Troughton is as adept with the verse as ever, and also demonstrates some great physical comedy alongside natural comic timing. The term "wheelie bin" will never be more satisfying to your ear!
Whilst this play has not always been that highly regarded, and almost feels like two separate plays crammed into one, this particular production could not have come at a better time. The notion of women pulling the strings and teaching presumptuous men a lesson is incredibly appealing - and the fact that it's done in a playful manner, rather than being at all vicious, makes it a breath of fresh air. A hugely enjoyable way to introduce yourself to one of Shakespeare's lesser known works.
Picture credit: Manuel Harlan