Merry Wives The Musical – December 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran. Music by Paul Englishby. Lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran (does the man ever sleep?)

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 13th December 2006

This was great fun. I tried not to have too high expectations, but it was difficult. The cast was to drool over, Merry Wives can be such fun, and it has the added frisson that this is one of the last two productions we’ll see here before the main house closes for redevelopment. All in all, a mouth-watering, highly charged prospect.

This adaptation and production didn’t disappoint. There’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s off to a good start. We chose to see the winter plays now, and again as part of the Winter School, and we’re already looking forward to seeing this one again. I suspect it will come on for the extra three weeks or so.

The set was lovely. It’s definitely an Elizabethan setting, all gables and oak beams. There are two houses on either side of the stage at the beginning. Chez Page is to our left, while the one opposite may be the Ford’s, though that’s not clear. To make this stage Windsor look more populated, there are false perspective houses towards the back. I was thinking that the actors would have to be careful not to get too close to them, and then a few scenes later, Mistress Quickly (Judi Dench) came on from the back. She did a lovely double take over the size of the buildings compared to her – very entertaining. Just about every part of the set moved to create the other locations; the interior of Ford’s house, the tavern, and the forest. The forest was basically the remaining wooden uprights when the rest of the set had been taken away – a nice, simple way to evoke a wood. Costumes were by Elizabethan out of the 1950’s – an interesting mixture of doublet, hose, and billowing skirts with layered petticoats. It all looked gorgeous.

Performances – all very good. Some quibbles. Judi Dench didn’t entirely convince as Mistress Quickly – a bit too intelligent. But her performance was good, especially the interaction with the houses. Simon Callow as Falstaff was excellent. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t worked here before. He made a great deal of the Shakespearean lines especially, which brought out how entertaining his character can be to others. And his comments on other people’s use of the English language were quite reasonable, given his command of it. Alistair McGowan’s performance as Ford is shaping up very nicely. I would like to see him do more with Brooke, though. Given the range he’s capable of, I would prefer to see more differentiation of the two “characters”, and more of the jealous reaction to Falstaff’s stories. But maybe this wouldn’t fit in with the overall feel of the piece. Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath were fine as the two wives, and took full advantage of the operatic (and even melodramatic) aspects of their roles. Simon Trinder – best Slender I’ve seen, helped by an extra drinking song to open the second half. Paul Chahidi was OK as Dr Cauis – didn’t always get his mangling of English, though. Brendan O’Hea was the best Pistol I’ve seen. Dressed like Russell Brand on a bad hair day, his part came across clearly, and his wooing of Mistress Quickly (they pinched bits from Henry IV part 2 to pad out the story) was great fun.

The music and lyrics were fine, though again I didn’t get all of them. We bought the CD afterwards, so we’ll probably be listening to it a bit before the second viewing. The best songs were the second half opening (a drinking song, where Simon Trinder as Slender gets royally pissed) and the Merry Wives song -a  bit of a hoe-down, catchy tune, and good lyrics. They could do with using this song more in the piece, to pull it together.

I realised there can be problems mixing the musical format and Shakespeare’s language – different rhythms means it can be confusing at first to go from one to the other. Also, I enjoy the original so much, it was a wrench to miss out on some of the dialogue and have to put up with a song instead. Although they did it well, the first gulling of Falstaff lost a lot through being sung, for me. Also, it invites comparison of the writing skills – dangerous territory.

Couple of points to remember – individual eyeshades on Brooke’s sunglasses, and Falstaff and cronies arriving on a half-timbered motorbike. Roll on January.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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