The Merry Wives Of Windsor – January 2013

Experience: 9/10
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Philip Breen
Venue: RST
Date: Tuesday 8th January 2013

As predicted, this has come on a lot with experience. The dialogue was much sharper, and apart from Nym I could make out almost all the dialogue pretty well. This allowed the detail of the plotting to shine through; I’m sure other productions have cut a lot, and even when bits such as the fake German booking at the Garter have been included they weren’t as clear as tonight. This Windsor is a hot bed of intrigue, practical jokes and sneering at your neighbours; the only thing missing is unfaithful wives!

I’ll include revisions from my earlier notes as I go along; these are usually either mistakes on my part first time round or minor changes to the staging, with some additional features added due to our different viewing angle. Slender had his arm in a sling again for the opening scene and his next entrance, so definitely a staging choice. His delivery and timing were much improved on the earlier performance, and Calum Finlay is shaping up nicely in this role. I could see Mistress Ford’s arrival this time, and Falstaff practically made a meal of her on the spot, holding her hand and eyeing her with wanton lasciviousness. Slender still hugged Simple when the latter arrived, but from the way he then shrugged his servant off I suspect he was simply in need of a bit of support.

I spotted Bardolph with the dartboard tonight at the Garter. He handed it to someone in the front row to hold for him, and as he drew his hand back to aim the dart he slipped it behind his ear, so the audience member was never in danger – not sure he was aware of that at the time, though. “No quips now, Pistol” was in tonight – don’t know if that was a change from last time or just my bad memory – and although Pistol and Nym did go on a bit, I was much more aware of their intention to get revenge on Falstaff by revealing his seduction plans to the respective husbands.

Dr Caius was clearer in the next scene: that is, I could tell he was talking a mangled version of English with some French thrown in. We could see poor Peter Simple being hurled against the closet door after the doctor discovered him in there, and he didn’t fare any better when they burst out onto the stage. Simple held up the magazine he’d been reading at one point to protect himself from the angry doctor’s sword, but with a slash of the rapier it was in two pieces. When the doctor ‘gave’ Simple the letter containing the challenge to the parson, he didn’t actually let go of it – still in a temper, perhaps – so Simple ran off without it and had to come back on, rather cautiously, a short while later to take it from the doctor’s outstretched hand.

Anne and William brought the coolbox and chair onto the rugby pitch as before, and left immediately. Mistress Page came up through the trapdoor and was handed Falstaff’s letter by the pageboy at the start of the scene. There was more of a reaction from Mistress Page as she read the letter – it was so nice to be admired and flattered in this way – so when she turned over the page to read the last line of verse and saw the name, her shock and horror were all the funnier. Her husband still couldn’t get the lid off the coolbox – his “how now, Meg” was an indication to his wife that something was wrong in his universe (and it was her job to fix it). She duly obliged by flipping the handle over, opening the box and taking out two bottles of beer, one for her husband and one for Ford, all with the resigned expression of the dutiful wife/dogsbody.

I forgot to mention last time about Mistress Quickly’s first visit to Falstaff’s room, which happened before Brook’s visit, of course. She was wonderfully talkative, and Falstaff had several goes at getting her to stick to the point, which was amusing. I was more aware tonight that she is as much part of the scheming as the two wives, and enjoys ensnaring Falstaff as much as they do – after a later scene she used a fist pump to celebrate a ‘result’. Following her departure this time around, Falstaff took out a mirror and used it to check out the gorgeous physique which had so enamoured Mistress Ford – his overweening vanity was very funny.

Ford’s visit as Brook seemed to work even better than before, judging by how much we laughed. When Ford had his head in his hands and the wig was waving about in mid-air, Falstaff put his hand towards it as if to push it back into place, but thought better of it. As he did last time, Ford took out a photo of his wife, which Brook obviously kept close to his heart, to show to the knight. The complexities of the plotting in this scene, with Ford actually using a lot of the truth to spin his web of deceit, came across very clearly, and I felt that John Ramm’s portrayal gave Ford more depth than is usual.

I can be clearer about the duelling sequences this time. The doctor, in his fencing gear, was prancing about the stage to warm up while Jack Rugby lounged in the car (a Citroen 2CV in fact) while the background music morphed into the theme tune from The Archers. In the distance stood a telephone box which I noticed this time – presumably the same telephone box used by the doctor and the parson to play their trick on the host of the Garter. Their conversation about the parson’s non-appearance was increased with a bit of business. To demonstrate his superiority (these men as so insecure) the doctor ordered Jack Rugby to place the apple he was holding on his head – ‘la pomme, la tête’, an inserted line. Jack demurred, the doctor insisted, so Jack placed the apple very carefully on top of his head, and with one swish from the rapier the two halves fell to the ground. (From our angle it was clear the blade never got within two feet of the apple, but we enjoyed the effect all the same.)

With the arrival of the host and several townsfolk, the dialogue became less comprehensible, but the ‘V’ sign was used to illustrate ‘clapper-claw’, so we got the gist. Once the stage had been cleared of this lot, the parson arrived with his bike (was he riding it at the time?) and leaned it up against a signpost which emerged through the floor and swung round to indicate that Windsor was 3 miles in the direction of backstage. The parson was much more nervous about the fight and so it was appropriate that he had Slender’s servant Peter Simple helping him, Slender being such a coward himself. The discovery of the host’s trick and the resolution of the quarrel between the two ‘foreigners’ was brisk enough and again we got the gist.

Mistress Page came out of her house with the pageboy Robin next, and encountered Ford who was carrying a racquet bag and another sports bag. She was soon off to see his wife, while Ford enlisted the help of several of the others who were returning from the non-duel. Then the stage was set up for Falstaff’s first encounter with the buck basket. All was as before, although I noticed that Mistress Page actually held the vase on top of the buck basket before deciding it was out of place and then returned it to the side table where it behaved as a vase should this time.

I assume I mistook the order of events at the previous performance; it was this first visit to Mistress Ford when the cushions went on the floor, the lights went down and the music played etc. Falstaff got hold of the remote control at one point and managed to turn the lights out completely (total blackout), while Alice (Mistress Ford) was being extremely provocative, taking every opportunity to present her attractive features to the elderly knight. Due to Falstaff’s lack of alacrity in hiding, Meg (Mistress Page) had to make her entrance four times to warn of the danger, and by the time she was able to speak, she wasn’t able to speak – she was out of breath. A restorative glass or two of champagne later, she informed Alice that her husband was on his way, and everyone (apart from Falstaff) enjoyed the way the curtain shook. The women carried on drinking the champagne and playing their parts, overacting them brilliantly, and Falstaff eventually erupted out of hiding when the possibility of hiding in the buck basket was suggested.

Ford’s arrival with his posse was even more fun than before. I’d forgotten that he ran around the house repeating the word ‘buck’ a lot during this scene – obvious rhyming connotations – and the reactions of the other men just added to the fun. The fart was still there and still being blamed on Meg, who wasn’t any happier about it this time round. While the men helped Ford search his own house, the women discussed the situation, and I was more aware this time that they realised something was up because of Ford’s sudden arrival. His later comment about Falstaff boasting “of that he could not compass” added to their suspicions. When Ford said “Come, wife”, Alice walked off stage with haughty dignity, ignoring his outstretched hand, making it clear her husband had better take several hot water bottles to bed with him to avoid a severe chill.

The interval was after this scene, and they restarted with Anne Page sneaking out of her parents’ house to have a crafty fag. Fenton found her there and went straight into wooing mode, but she wasn’t about to fall into his arms for the sake of some fancy talk. Allowing this scene to be done properly (i.e. according to the first Folio) gave us more insight into Anne’s character than usual, and I got the impression that she’s fully aware of her situation and chooses Fenton mainly because he’s the best option available to her. He’s certainly more attractive in every department than her other suitors, and while they may be happy enough in the future, this isn’t the soppy love match which is usually presented to us. I also appreciated seeing her father show some temper towards Fenton; he’s another character who becomes very bland if this scene is prettified up, but tonight we could see the controlling father underneath the apparently laid-back demeanour. It’s good to have some grit in this play for once.

Falstaff’s arrival back at the Garter was another very funny scene, along with the conversations with Mistress Quickly and Brook. They got the most out of the dialogue, and after Falstaff left to prepare for his next assignation with Ford’s wife, the husband himself didn’t just rant about things; he broke a snooker cue in half and used each half to make horns for himself – very funny.

The schoolboys were next, and again it was the boys’ reactions to what William was saying that indicated a lot of the humour, although this William’s delivery was also very good. Mistress Quickly had her back to me throughout this scene, so I couldn’t see her expressions, but the group of boys standing towards the back of the stage could, and they were really enjoying themselves. At long last Mistress Page sent her son home and went to visit her friend, who by now was getting a little desperate. Alice had been fending Sir John off for some time, and frequent glances at her watch made it clear that she’d expected Meg to arrive much sooner.

The scene played out as before, with Falstaff rolling himself in the carpet, Alice taking the melons upstairs, and Ford going berserk over the buck basket when he arrived. He leapt on it, made others lean on it when he moved away for a few moments, and again crawled inside to try and locate an enormous knight who would have been visible with only a cursory glance inside. It was very funny, and although I found the chase sequence a bit clumsy this time, it was still good fun, especially when one of the melons fell on the floor. The other men agreed to assist Ford in one more search, and there was a strong sense of the community in action here, with neighbours helping one another but also having a say in one another’s behaviour; Ford was clearly on the brink of accepting that he had to stop suspecting his wife, or at least stop such extreme behaviour based on his suspicions.

During the search, the doctor and the parson must have snuck out to the telephone box, as this was when the hoax call was made to the Garter to book the host’s horses. Although the box was right by us, the host and Bardolph were obscured by the balcony, so I didn’t find this as clear as last time. In any case, it sounded like the garbled German part of the call was a recording.

Back at the Ford’s house the women had told the men everything, and Ford made a very fulsome apology to his wife, even if he did go a bit over the top. I noticed that when it came to the final revenge, the women not only had to arrange for Falstaff to go to Herne’s oak, they also have to plan the punishment as well. Do these men actually contribute anything useful? Mistress Page delivered almost all the lines for this bit, with Alice keen to chip in but only just managing a couple of lines. The plans for wedding Anne to Slender and then the doctor were explained to us as various characters went off individually to prepare for the finale.

The scene at the Garter was as before, and the parson and the doctor each turned up to inform the host that he had been tricked – how they laughed. The pub had been decorated with all sorts of German trimmings – flags, a “Welkommen” sign, plates of frankfurters, etc., and there were two blond barmaids in German country-style frocks while the host was in full liederhosen. It was a bit overwhelming, but it did show that the host had gone to a lot of expense for his supposed guests, and made his concern easier to understand. The rest of the action was as before, with the necessary information about Anne’s various disguises coming across clearly. When the wives came on stage before the final scene, I noticed that Mistress Page was towing a shopping trolley and I realised it held her costume – Mistress Ford was already prepared under her coat.

The oak didn’t look as good from this angle as it had last time, but the performance of the ‘fairies’ was clearer and I spotted not only the white and green trimmings but also the moments when each ‘Anne’ was removed, the real Anne having red ribbons on her skull headdress. Mistress Quickly as the fairy queen spoke much more like our current monarch than I recall from the previous performance, and there were quite a few laughs during the fairy scene but on the whole I felt it went on a bit too long. With Sir John in the pit, being attacked by the children, the Pages and Fords finally returned to call a halt to the punishment. Ford was in a Hulk costume, very appropriate for a man who suffered from jealousy, while Page needed a good deal of padding to fill his Superman suit. After the final line, Mistress Ford squealed and ran off stage pursued by her husband, and at the very end, with Falstaff left alone in the pit, he lit up a cigar and had a ‘Hamlet’ moment. For those of us old enough to remember the cigar adverts, it was an even more fitting end to the performance.

Most of the cast came out again a short while later for the post-show chat, and the director was also there. He explained some of his initial ideas and inspirations for the production, and there were interesting comments by the cast too. Desmond Barrit remarked that he preferred doing modern dress productions of Shakespeare; the audience seem to engage better with the performance and often think that the language has been updated! The strength of the women’s parts was commented on, along with the importance of playing characters ‘seriously’ even though it’s a comedy; after all, the characters don’t know they’re in a funny play. The director had focused on the two buck basket scenes as being the most important in terms of the humour, so they spent some time working on them. The cast seemed to be having a good time, and I suspect we were a decent audience, so a good night was had by all.

Now that it’s settled into its run, I felt the standard of performances varied a bit tonight, but overall the production worked extremely well. Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel nailed the middle class wives to perfection, with Alexandra vamping it up brilliantly and Sylvestra giving us a glimpse into a life spent looking after others without much time for personal fun. The husbands were also good, with Page being more rounded a character than usual, and Ford being more sympathetic; his unreasonableness seemed more reasonable, if I can put it that way, and the man was clearly suffering from his obsessive jealousy. Desmond Barrit’s Falstaff was truly monumental, and he wrung every last drop of humour out of both the dialogue and the comic business – his attempt to dance seductively was wonderfully funny. The success of the production lies in the collective effort though, and this combination of performances on this set has created an excellent and novel experience. It’s a shame when productions this good don’t transfer to London or anywhere else, and I hope the RSC will look at ways to make these successes more widely available in the future.

Some ideas which occurred to me when I was watching this performance: there’s a great deal of arguing going on in this play, lots of people playing tricks, changing allegiances and the like. Windsor is not a happy place, and the men seem to define themselves by their quarrels. Even Slender, trying to be a man, talks a lot about fighting but is easily alarmed by a dog’s bark. Against this, the women come across as much more cooperative, with the three Mistresses – Page, Ford and Quickly – combining to give Sir John some serious punishment for his impudence.

I was also aware of the ‘threes’ in this play. Slender sequentially accuses Sir John’s three followers, who, like the three-card trick, each escape detection. Anne has three suitors, and each suitor has an ‘Anne’. There are three assignations arranged with Falstaff as well, and I’ve already mentioned the three Mistresses; even if they aren’t three wives, they still represent middle-aged womanhood – spinster, wife, mother. Even if the dialogue doesn’t use the poetical and rhetorical techniques of the other plays, the structure seems to be grounded on similar principles.

Steve also spotted that the daughter’s name is Anne, she was being married off at a young age (for the Elizabethans) and had a younger brother, William. Was this in any way a mirror image of the marriage of another, teenage, William marrying a much older Anne? And now I think about it, were the choices this Anne faced any reflection of another Anne’s situation? We shall probably never know, but it is fun to speculate.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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