The Merry Wives Of Windsor – October 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Philip Breen

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2012

They’ve had some technical difficulties with this production and cancelled the first previews, so this was only the second performance. The cast need a bit longer to get into their full stride, but already this is shaping up to be a classic production of this play, on a par with the famed Bill Alexander version. I even detected a nod to that earlier staging in the pumpkin lantern placed in the corner of an upstairs window of Master Page’s house, the opening backdrop to the performance. The pumpkin lantern also helped to identify the very specific time of this version – late autumn 2012 – and the rest of the design supported that setting beautifully.

In fact, the set design was the first thing that made us hopeful of a good evening’s entertainment. Finally, we saw a design which used the thrust stage as a performance space rather than as the venue for an art installation which would do its best to trip up the actors, obscure them from view or generally get in the way of the actor/audience relationship. Mind you, there were plenty of technical ‘challenges’ to this design as well, and I suspect there are already a few aspects which the actors would like to ditch altogether, but on the whole this was a ‘proper’ set which supported the performance instead of competing with it.

The flooring across the whole of the stage (as far as I could tell) was a diamond pattern of wooden boards with occasional insets of patterned wood. Behind the thrust at the start was the front of the Page’s mock-Tudor manor house, complete with embossed wooden door, lots of windows and a rampant ivy which spread its gnarled limbs across the full width of the stage. It had dropped a lot of its leaves, this being the autumn, but the remaining clumps were vivid red, a lovely sight to see.

This façade was lifted up when not in use, and a number of different settings became available behind it, from the relatively open rugby pitch, through the back wall of the Garter pub to the simple and elegant glass and metal décor of the Ford’s luxury home. I did like the emphasis on Ford and Page being middle class nouveau riche people. It explained Falstaff’s interest in them, or rather their wives, much better, and although they kept to the original text for the various sums of money, I found it easier to grasp that Anne Page’s seven hundred pounds was a huge amount when the design made it clear that her parents were rolling in it.

For the Garter, they brought on a pool table which sat centrally near the front of the stage, while the bar itself was a U-shaped projection which came forward once the house front was lifted. It was a traditional country pub bar with glasses above and wooden bar below with old fashioned real ale pump handles. Steve spotted Bardolph with a dartboard first time round; he gave it to a member of the audience to hold then made as if to throw a dart at it, but of course health and safety wouldn’t let him actually do it.

For the Ford household, a white carpet was brought on and rolled out to cover the middle of the stage, the back of the stage had glass panels and glass double doors and there were metal stairs rising to either side with a metal balcony across the back. The sofa came up via a trapdoor about two thirds of the way back; it was complete with a side table which held a table lamp and a recalcitrant vase and flower, but the latter were only there the first time around.

The rugby pitch was done very well; two rugby posts were lowered down towards the back of the thrust and these were roughly to scale, while a second set, in miniature, were placed further back to give a false perspective. A folding chair and coolbox had been brought on by Anne Page and young William at the start of the scene and stayed there till the end. Falstaff’s upper room at the Garter was simply a bed which came up through the same trap as the sofa, and another long trapdoor which opened up at the very front of the stage to give access. I don’t remember how they screened off the back of the stage for those scenes.

For the very brief scene where the host of the Garter arranged to hire out his horses to some Germans, a red phone box rose up in the front left corner of the stage, and two characters – I realised later it had to be the doctor and the parson – crammed themselves into it to make their hoax phone call. The host took their call up on the balcony of Ford’s house, but as the lights had been lowered and only these two locations were lit, it could have been anywhere.

Doctor Caius’s surgery was a modern office space. There were two metal chairs to the right for waiting patients, and a desk with a computer came up through the trap along with Mistress Quickly. The back wall had a half-timbered look and there was one modern door with a glass panel in it for the cupboard. For the finale, Herne’s oak was a magnificent change from the urban to the rural. With the backdrops lifted, the space behind was filled with the shape of a fallen oak trunk and branches – the trunk was so big that they had to wait till the wall had been lifted before they could swing it round, and its roots stuck out into the stage a fair way. The little ‘elves’ had an actual pit to hide in at the front of the stage; this appeared and disappeared depending on the action – don’t want those little children falling and hurting themselves. Apart from these, there were a couple of locations which were pretty much blank stage, as with the places where the doctor and parson had been told to meet for their duel.

The costumes were similarly rich and varied. Mistress Page was the tweedy country wife to perfection, with welly boots for the rugger match and a headscarf most of the time. Mistress Ford was much more alluring. She’d kept her figure and believed in showing it off, although to be fair she only dressed seductively for Falstaff as part of the deception. Ford himself was the sporty type; he was in his kit after the rugby match and was also carrying a racquet later on, while Page had also been playing rugby from the looks of it and often wore a sports-type anorak. The doctor was a natty dresser and even had the full fencing gear for the duel, unlike the parson who was less well dressed and certainly didn’t look like he knew which end of a rapier was which. Falstaff was mostly in tweed or similar, apart from his brief spell in drag, and the rest of the cast wore appropriate clothes for their station. I’ll describe the final scene’s costumes later.

The opening scene with Justice Shallow having a rant at Falstaff was OK, but I had some lovely views of people’s backs and missed some of the dialogue – they’ll be much clearer once they’ve bedded the production down I’m sure. Slender had his right arm in a sling – don’t know if that was related to the cancelled previews or to the treatment he received at the hands of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph. He wasn’t wearing it later, so we assume it was the latter.

When they knocked on Page’s door, there was a laugh when young William opened it as they were expecting someone a good deal taller. His father soon appeared behind him, however, and I noticed that William stayed on stage during the rest of the scene until most of the group went back in to dinner. This was something mentioned by the director in his pre-show chat, that the children were always present in the play; they certainly were tonight.

Falstaff’s first appearance was a treat. Desmond Barrit wore a fat suit to create a very rotund Sir John, and he made the most of his bulk throughout the performance. Slender was noticeably nervous of Pistol and Nym – nobody seemed to mind Bardolph – and with Mistress Ford’s arrival, sadly obscured from my view, all but Slender went inside to enjoy the venison pasty announced by Mistress Page.

Slender rushed over to Peter Simple when he appeared and gave him a big hug; I wasn’t sure if this was a sign of deeper affection than usual or just an indication of Slender’s nerves. The parson and Shallow came out to talk with him, followed by Anne and then her father. The dialogue was still a bit limp at this point, and with Slender being so central to these exchanges I felt this portrayal needs more work. His final exit into the house was nicely awkward, and then Sir Hugh came out to give Simple a letter to take to Mistress Quickly.

The first Garter scene followed, with Sir John lying on the pool table when they wheeled it on. It took him a while to come to, and then he began downsizing his entourage. I suspect the host regretted his offer to take Bardolph on almost immediately, as Bardolph managed to fall down the stairs to the cellar and from the subsequent sounds of breakages he’s likely to be an expensive employee.

As Sir John expanded on his financial plight to the other two, he gradually shifted himself off the table and was standing to one side when Pistol cracked the joke about Falstaff’s girth. They ditched the line “No quips now, Pistol”, and Falstaff acknowledged the truth of Pistol’s jest before turning to the serious matter of cozening money out of the wealthy of Windsor. His men turned their noses up at being mere messengers so young Robin, who had been sitting on a bar stool all the while, was sent in their place. Falstaff‘s rejection of Pistol and Nym was followed by their decision to land him in it with the two husbands, and that was that.

In Dr Caius’s surgery, Jack Rugby took an age to come when Mistress Quickly called him, but eventually he turned up to act as lookout and she could attend to Peter Simple. Dressed in a fitted grey suit, Anita Dobson played Mistress Quickly as a kindly busybody, using a light girlish voice for the most part and very occasionally dropping the pitch a couple of octaves to the deep tone she used when playing Joan Crawford in a recent tour, but without the American accent of course. It was quite effective, and added to the humour. She also had a tendency to bend down as if talking to a child, which was fine when she was talking to one of the children, but as she was usually doing it with adults it was amusingly patronising, though entirely in keeping with her character. Having said that, she was the only one who noticeably deferred to Sir John, curtsying regularly whenever she was in his presence, apart from her last visit to his room.

When Dr Caius turned up he was almost unintelligible, which is fine in one way as he’s meant to have a poor grasp of English, but I wasn’t even able to tell when he was speaking English or French, it was such a jumble. He did settle down in the later scenes, and his “by Gar” was clearly “bugger”. For now, he was in a rage when he discovered Peter Simple in his closet, dragging him out and throwing him on the floor. Jack Rugby brought the rapier, and despite Simple trying to slip away, he ended up on the floor again and about to be skewered when Dr Caius finally allowed him to explain his presence. Dr Caius left the room to write his letter, and after his massive tantrum it was fun to hear Mistress Quickly comment “I am glad he is so quiet”.

Dr Caius sent Simple off with the challenge for the parson, and Mistress Quickly smoothed the doctor’s ruffled feathers with assurances that Anne Page would be his. Fenton arrived after the doctor left, and was also reassured that Anne loved him. I caught the reference to the wart this time – never noticed it before – and it seemed an amusingly absurd item for Anne to be talking about with Mistress Quickly; from Fenton’s expression he was puzzled about it as well.

The rugby pitch was the next location, and after Anne and William had brought on the chair and coolbox, Mistress Page arrived in her welly boots. I don’t remember if she sent them off or they just left, but once she was on her own she took out the letter she’d received and read it out loud. Despite her initial scorn at receiving a love letter at her age, she was quite affected to find herself complimented so much, even making allowances for the tactless remark about her age given that the writer was equally blunt about his. Even though she wouldn’t have acted on the offer of a liaison, she was clearly enjoying the flattery until she turned the page over and read the last couple of lines followed by the signature. That changed everything. She was amazed and appalled in equal measure. Mistress Ford turned up a few moments later, and the two women were soon comparing the letters and planning revenge.

When their husbands arrived, Page tried for some time to open the coolbox to get a beer but it refused to budge. His wife walked over, lifted the lid and handed him a bottle – how we laughed. The chat between the two men was very clear, and although I noticed a strong physical similarity between Ford and Page in this scene – they were of a height, both bald and with a similar build – I was aware of who was who. I don’t know if this casting was deliberate or just a chance occurrence.

When Brook (Ford) turned up in Falstaff’s room, he was wearing a wig, quite a reasonable one for once, but it had a life of its own as we shall see and in any case stage wigs are funny, especially in farce. He also carried an attaché case filled with banknotes, and although Falstaff had it in his hands a couple of times, he didn’t get the full contents at this visit. Mind you, he did have several bundles of notes in his hands by the end of the scene, though I suspected they wouldn’t stay there long. When Brook was telling Falstaff of his suffering at being denied by Mistress Ford, he sat beside Falstaff on the bed and sank his face into his hands. Bent over like that, his wig flopped forward, and we laughed at the expressions on Falstaff’s face as he gave it his attention. He presumably decided that another man’s vanity was no business of his, so Ford’s disguise still worked while we had some fun. Ford wasn’t so over-the-top with his jealousy this time, which was less funny than we’ve seen before but did fit well with this production.

The failed duel came next, and the difference between the two ‘combatants’ was very evident. The doctor arrived on the bare stage in his fencing gear and fully equipped with his rapier, and began to do various exercises to warm himself up while Jack Rugby drove off in the car – an old Morris Minor I think. When the parson entered on his bike, he was normally dressed and his sword was on the back of the bike. I didn’t follow all the dialogue for this bit, but their reaction to the trick played on them by the host of the Garter was clear, and at least it had the effect of resolving their dispute, whatever it was. The car was good fun, too – not quite up to the Ferrari standard, but still enjoyable.

Falstaff’s first visit to Mistress Ford involved the setting up of the buck basket, a huge wicker basket with two handles. Some laundry was already in there, and the basket was placed just off stage on the left walkway. Mistress Page put the vase with a single flower on it at first, but soon realised it looked strange there so put it back on the side table where it didn’t stay long, falling off at the first opportunity – ripe for cutting?

With the room set up, Meg left Alice to her assignation, and Falstaff was soon at the door. To add to the occasion, he’d brought her some Roses – not the flowers, but a small box of chocolates of that name. He put them down on the sofa and got on with his wooing, which was deliciously absurd. Soon Meg was knocking at the door, interrupting their bliss with a warning that Ford himself was on his way to catch her red-handed. With such spartan furnishings, there was nowhere for Falstaff (or anyone else for that matter) to hide, so he was sent up the stairs – torment itself for such a man – and hid behind the curtain which Alice lowered by means of a remote control. Meg had to redo her entrance three or four times because the curtain descended so slowly it took an age to cover Falstaff, another enjoyable bit of business.

With Falstaff out of sight, Meg and Alice sat on the sofa and enjoyed a chocolate or two while they went through their dialogue about Ford’s sudden return. When the buck basket was suggested, Falstaff was downstairs surprisingly quickly and into the basket without quibbling – the women had moved it into the centre of the stage at this point. The two servants were about to take it away when Ford arrived with the others, demanding that the doors be locked and the house searched. As they stood around the basket, Falstaff farted loudly, we all laughed, and after a long pause Alice said “Meg”, and gave a disappointed look at her friend. Meg wasn’t too happy with this attribution, but gallantly took one for the team, which was even funnier.

The servants almost didn’t make it out of the door with the basket, it was so heavy, but once they got it sliding it moved quite quickly and they were gone. With the domestic trivia out of the way, Ford went berserk, chasing round the house, searching every room – sounds off indicated the violent nature of the search – while the wives waited below for his eventual defeat and planned the next phase of their revenge on Falstaff.

The next scene showed us the competing claims of Fenton and Slender for the hand of Anne Page, together with the competition between her mother and father to choose her husband. Very few people seemed to be interested in what Anne herself wanted, and I could see her choice of Fenton as possibly being more to do with teenage rebellion than actual love.

Back at the Garter, Falstaff arrived, wet, dirty and unhappy. Mistress Quickly soon had him interested in another tryst with Mistress Ford, and when Brooke heard the details of Falstaff’s first escape he was naturally furious. The next scene involved a number of the young boys playing around the stage, clearly not in school although they were in uniform. Mistress Page called her son over and asked the parson to test him on his lessons, and the other boys stood in a group near the front of the stage while William came out with his answers, and by their rections we could see how funny it all was. Some of the answers were funny in themselves, some of the humour lay in Mistress Quickly’s misunderstanding of the Latin words, and some was down to the parson’s Welsh pronunciation – “focative” was especially funny and had the boys in fits of laughter. As a demonstration of schoolboy humour this staging worked very well, and made much more sense of the wordplay in the scene.

The second visit to Mistress Ford was even funnier than the first. With the basic set in place, Alice threw some cushions on the floor at the front of the stage, and used the remote control to lower the lights and play some mood music. She was wearing a diaphanous white top and animal print leggings and slinked seductively round the stage, dancing to the music. Falstaff was enchanted, and even joined in the dance a little, but his main aim was to get her into a clinch as fast as he could, while she did her best to fend him off till Meg got there.

When Meg did arrive, Falstaff threw himself onto the carpet and rolled himself up in it, a totally ineffective hiding place. After the women had hit on the idea of using a disguise to get Falstaff out of the house, he was sent upstairs with Meg to get ready, and while servants brought the buck basket out again, Alice went to get some extra items from the kitchen. She returned with two melons, held close to her chest, which drew the attention of the servants (and the audience as well). She told the servants off when she realised what they were grinning at, and dashed upstairs to help with the disguise. This left the men to carry the surprisingly light buck basket towards the door just as Ford and the others came in. As usual, the dirty linen went everywhere, the buck basket was toppled over and Ford even crawled inside to check for hidden compartments before acknowledging the knight wasn’t there.

In the commotion, various items had been thrown around and broken, and when Mistress Ford came down I saw her pick up the bottom end of a snooker cue and hold it behind her back. After she called to Mistress Page to come down with “the old woman”, and her husband had flown into a rage that the old woman of Brent was in his house, she held out the stick for her husband to take on his way up the stairs, even as she was saying “Good gentlemen, let him not strike the old woman”. But he did, and mercilessly too, chasing her out of the house before locking the doors and conducting yet another fruitless search.

The women decided this time to tell their husbands the whole story, but before we saw the result of that there was the trick to be played on the host of the Garter; I’ve described the staging of that earlier on. Once done, the lighting rose again on the rest of the stage and the husbands and their wives, together with the other characters, planned their revenge on Falstaff.

At the Garter, Falstaff reappeared in his own likeness, gave some entertaining answers to Simple and then the host learned how he had been tricked and his horses stolen. Mistress Quickly lured Sir John away to his room to excuse his beating and set up the final assignation, and during his absence Fenton explained to the host (and us) the plans for the marriage of Anne Page to three different men. There only remained the brief visit by Master Brooke to whet Falstaff’s appetite, some short scenes where Anne’s suitors were informed of their signals and then we were off to the forest, to Herne’s oak, for the final scene of the play.

The set change took a little while, but gave us another beautiful setting for the action. The children came on in their fairy disguises with the parson and hid in the pit before Falstaff entered, done up as a stag with antlers on his head. He looked ridiculous, of course. The women arrived shortly afterwards, and they were also done up in deer disguises; Mistress Ford as a sexy doe with a white scut and short horns, and Mistress Page like the front end of a pantomime deer with the back end sticking out behind – very unglamorous. They were soon startled by a noise and ran off, while Falstaff hid behind the trunk. The sprites and goblins came out of the pit and stood listening to the fairy queen’s instructions. The fairy queen was Mistress Quickly, and she was done up like Elizabeth II in the white full length gown with blue sash, another topical reference to the recent Jubilee celebrations.

Once Sir John was spotted, the fairies gave him a hard time, and I didn’t really notice the disappearance of the three Anne Pages. The revelation of the trick left Falstaff down but not out, and the announcements of the weddings were good fun, with Page and his wife finally coming round to accepting their new son-in-law. With the closing lines, Ford grabbed his wife and ran off with her, obviously planning to carry out the lying with Ford’s wife sooner rather than later. The others left as well, apart from Falstaff, who sat in the pit with the leaves falling on him as the lights went down, a fitting end.

Given the difficulties they’ve had this was a very good start to the run, and we’re looking forward to seeing it again. Once they can get the dialogue across better it should be a very entertaining experience.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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