The Merry Wives – May 2016

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare (slightly adapted)

Directed by Barry Rutter

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud

Date: Wednesday 11th May 2016

We like Northern Broadsides’ no-nonsense approach to Shakespeare’s texts, so we weren’t bothered to find that this version of Merry Wives was no longer set in Windsor, but had been relocated to a country club a few miles outside Harrogate (information courtesy of a post-show chat with the cast). The costumes located the play in the 1920s (with some variations) and the set created a stylish yet simple space for all of the action, with little need to trundle lots of furniture on and off. There was a replica of a 1920s treadmill and three lovely examples of period bicycles, including a tandem, to add to the fun, and the few alterations to the text included the “old woman of Ilkley”, a perfectly acceptable substitution. Apart from that, the dialogue was as expected, and the performance fairly zinged along, with some lovely business to keep us entertained. A shame there were so few of us to enjoy the fun – the auditorium was about a third full – but hopefully they will get better attendances later in the week.

The set was bright and cheerful, setting the tone straightaway. Square tiles covered the floor, with a central diamond showing a flower pattern, surrounded by slats of contrasting colours, mainly from a palette of green, yellow and orange. The back of the stage was covered by blue/grey curtains, with a gap in the middle, and similar curtains delineated the entrances at the sides. A circular bench round a central pole sat front right, painted to match the curtains, and there were two sections of picket fence: one was front left, and had some wicker chairs, a table and other paraphernalia beside it, while the other was by the middle right entrance. Next to that fence stood a tall basket in which there were various sporting implements, including what I took at first to be the handle of a mop but which turned out to be a javelin.

My favourite bit of the design, however, was the trees. There were six or seven of them, mostly across the back but two or three were placed at the sides. Looking like flattened coat stands, they consisted of a Y-shape with a wide V-shape added at the top, creating an abstract four-branch tree-like design: these were painted the same colour as the curtains. They were perfect, and gave the set a lighter touch.

The opening scene with Justice Shallow and Slender meeting the parson, Sir Hugh Evans, worked very well. Shallow was being played by Tom Dyer Blake, with no explanation given for the absence of the original cast member Gerard McDermott – we hope he’s OK. Tom gave a fine performance as the Justice, so no complaints there, although he was younger than we’re used to in that part. Sir Hugh (John Gully) was also good, but I was very taken with Slender (Jos Vantyler), who slouched his way through the performance with all the grace of a socially inept numbskull. His curly hair and cherubic face masked a head completely devoid of thinking matter (or none that was currently in use at any rate) and his mustard and blue tartan breeches accompanied by mustard yellow shoes, socks, jacket, etc., told us all we needed to know about his fashion sense. He spent the boring bits of the scene – boring for him, that is – walking along the lines between the tiles, no doubt a challenging activity for the young man, and I think it’s safe to say that few actors have got this part across so well.

When Sir John Falstaff (Barry Rutter) came out to see what was happening, his suit was much more stylish in a country-gentleman’s tweedy sort of way. His huge round belly gave him trouble sitting down on the circular bench, and even more trouble when he tried to get up again. His henchmen were dressed in a simpler fashion, looking like the average working man, but they moved with a hint of menace. After all three of them had denied taking Slender’s purse, the women arrived. Mistress Ford (Becky Hindley) and Mistress Page (Nicola Sanderson) had come from the tennis court, and were dressed in drop-waisted shift dresses, popular at the time, and still carried their tennis racquets. After being greeted by the men – Falstaff paid significant attention to Mistress Ford, who was polite but made a face afterwards – the women trotted off into the house and most of the guests followed. Peter Simple, Slender’s servant, came on carrying a croquet mallet and a rake – no idea what that was about, but it looked funny – and stood by for the rest of the scene while Shallow and Sir Hugh tried to persuade Slender to woo Anne Page. Slender was as non-committal as usual, and Anne, who had been sent to call him in to dinner, was pretty stroppy with him – never seen that before. The parson sent Simple off with a letter to Mistress Quickly, and then the stage was set up for the first scene at the Garter pub.

It didn’t take long: the two chairs and the table were brought on front left, and that was it. This was our chance to get to know the Falstaff crew better, and they didn’t disappoint. The page Robin was played by Sarah Eve, doubling with Anne Page, so the lines were nice and clear, while in this costume – trousers, shirt, vest, cap – she looked like a young lad. The host (Mark Stratton) was very talkative, never using one word when he could employ a dozen, and Bardolph (Josh Moran, doubling with Jack Rugby) was delighted with his new job as tapster – better keep an eye on the inventory! Pistol (Ben Burman) was both fiery and talkative, moving about with a lot of restless energy, while Nim was the complete opposite, very still and with a delightfully deadpan delivery: Adam Barlow did a great job of both this part and Fenton.

They got several laughs during this scene, especially on Pistol’s quip “two yards and more”, and after they had all left the stage, we moved to Doctor Caius’ rooms. To provide a hiding place for Simple, they wheeled on a circular rail with a long curtain hanging from it and a canopy overhead – the table and chairs were left in place. Mistress Quickly (Helen Sheals) was done up like a charlady with a scarf around her head and an apron, and she was another chatty sort, always finding plenty to say about everyone else’s business. But she clearly had a good heart, because she was always willing to help people, including the three men who were keen to marry Anne Page. For once, Mistress Quickly didn’t seem to be taking sides at all, but was happy to recommend Anne’s suitors equally.

When Doctor Caius (Andy Cryer) came on asking for his green box, Simple, who was hiding inside the curtained ‘closet’, held it out for Mistress Quickly to take, which was very funny. Once Caius had discovered Simple, he grabbed the javelin from the stand and chased him around the stage for a while. After he calmed down a little – Mistress Quickly got a good laugh when she commented “I am glad he is so quiet” – the doctor drafted a letter for Simple to take to Sir Hugh, and then left with Jack Rugby, which gave Mistress Quickly a chance to talk with Fenton, the third of Anne’s suitors. In this production, it was clear that he may originally have wanted Anne’s money, but that love for Anne had taken over. In any case, he wasn’t short of a bob or two, as several notes of a monetary kind passed from him to Mistress Quickly – she had no trouble accepting them.

This was when the treadmill was brought on stage so that we could see Mistress Page doing her exercises. She did some jogging steps round the stage, then some calisthenics and stretches before getting on the treadmill (back left) and opening the letter to read it aloud. Despite the unpromising start, she was getting quite excited by the protestations of love, and had to use a conveniently placed powder puff to dry her face several times. This lasted until she turned the letter over to read the signature and saw “John Falstaff” – she nearly fell off the treadmill! After checking over her behaviour, in case she’d unwittingly encouraged such an advance from the portly knight, she was incensed at his cheek, and when Mistress Ford arrived and handed over her version of the same letter, Mistress Page sat on the bench, scanning them both carefully, before informing her friend that they’d received identical letters. They decided to get their revenge on Falstaff, and left when they saw their husbands coming along.

Pistol and Nim were doing their best to warn Ford and Page about Falstaff’s intentions towards their wives – no luck with Page, but Pistol planted a seed in fertile ground, as we would see later. The women came back out after they had gone, and when Mistress Quickly arrived they whisked her away to be their messenger to Falstaff, leaving their husbands to mull over what they’d heard. Page was the more sensible of the two, recognising that Nim and Pistol weren’t the most reliable of witnesses, and well aware that his wife would give Falstaff short shrift if he tried anything on with her. Ford was showing early signs of the jealousy which his wife had warned us about, but wasn’t totally out of control by any means. The host of the Garter and Justice Shallow arrived, and invited the two men to join them in the prank being played on Sir Hugh and the doctor. Ford took this opportunity to arrange with the host to introduce him (Ford) to Falstaff as Mr Brooke, and they all went off to see the fun.

Back at the Garter, Falstaff was arguing with Pistol when young Robin announced the arrival of Mistress Quickly. Sir John was keen to get rid of her as quickly as possible, until he heard the magic words “there is one Mistress Ford”, and then he was all ears, edging away from the others to listen to the message. He was still impatient for her to get on with it, but didn’t interrupt her long-winded descriptions and was delighted to hear that Mistress Ford’s husband would “be from home” between “ten and eleven”.

Mistress Quickly was scarcely out of the door when Falstaff received another visitor, this time Mr Brooke. Previous productions have made good comic use of Ford’s need for a disguise, but here he was simply dressed as a golfer, and carrying a golf bag with several clubs. The pouch on the bag contained wads of cash, and since Falstaff had never met Ford before, nothing else was required. His story of unrequited love was readily believed by Falstaff, who was only too eager to reassure Mr Brooke that an appointment had already been made – Mr Brooke was startled to hear that! With his jealous premonitions seeming all too justified, he determined to catch Falstaff and his wife in the act.

The table and chairs were removed at this point, leaving a nice open stage for Doctor Caius to prowl around as he waited for the parson to turn up for their duel. He was still carrying the javelin. The host, Page, Shallow and Slender arrived, and there was plenty of humour in the Frenchman’s preposterous pronunciations of English words. When he left with the host to visit Anne Page, as he thought, the parson came on armed with a hockey stick, and was as nervous as Caius had been angry. I found this section less clear than the others, but I was well aware of the duellists’ reaction when they found out that they’d been tricked by the host.

Mistress Page and Robin met Ford outside his house, and finding out that Robin was formerly in Falstaff’s crew didn’t improve Ford’s temper. When the group of people who had attended the non-duel arrived, Ford invited them all to his house, and although a few cried off, he had a small party with him to witness what he thought would be his wife’s infidelity. Meanwhile, in the house, the curtained closet was brought on again along with a large buck basket which was stationed front and centre. Given that other place names were changed, I suspect that the Thames and Datchet Mead were also amended when Mistress Ford gave the instructions to her men, but I don’t remember what place names she used instead.

After Robin reported that Falstaff was on his way, Mistress Ford sat on the bench and leaned back, attempting a ‘come hither’ pose which was frankly unnecessary given Falstaff’s lecherous disposition. Even so, Mistress Page adjusted her a little before dashing off, and then Falstaff arrived and immediately began his seduction routine. They were soon interrupted by Robin, and Falstaff quickly (it’s a relative term) hid himself in the closet, where he could hear but not see. And it’s just as well, because Mistress Page was way over the top in her acting when she warned Mistress Ford that her husband was coming. Mistress Ford began to pick up on the large gestures as well, and when Mistress Page suggested that the basket might make a good hiding place, Falstaff waddled towards it at great speed, pausing only to reassure Mistress Page that she was his real love.

With the basket full of knight, well covered in dirty linen, Mistress Ford called for her men to take it away. They did their best, but when they tried to lift it the basket was so heavy they both fell over. Then Ford and his friends arrived, and there was a nasty moment when Ford enquired what his men were doing with the basket. But fortunately he wasn’t suspicious of the laundry, and although there was a pause while another man came on with a trolley to lift the basket up and take it off, we were soon into the fruitless search and the wives’ reactions: they were killing themselves. They laughed so much that Mistress Page fell off the bench and ended up lying on the floor. This went on for some time – possibly a bit too long – before they regained enough control to say their lines, after which the men came back in and Ford was rebuked soundly for his unfounded suspicions. Page invited the other men to go birding the next day, and they finished the first half with Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius agreeing to trick the host. Interval.

The time passed quickly to the accompaniment of birdsong, and then the second half began with Fenton wooing Anne. She was smart enough to question his motive for marrying her, but it was also clear that she was keen on him as well. Mistress Quickly arrived with Slender and Justice Shallow, and she drew Fenton behind the bench while Slender made his feeble attempt to woo Anne. The comparison between the two men was not favourable to him, although it was funny to watch.

With the wooers and their supporters off stage, we were back to the Garter Inn, where Falstaff was complaining about his treatment. Mistress Quickly was soon able to convince him that Mrs Ford wasn’t to blame for his dunking, and fixed a new appointment. Mr Brooke arrived shortly after she left, and was very curious to know how Sir John had escaped from a close encounter with Mr Ford. The story was well told, with less of a reaction from Mr Brooke than usual.

Mistress Quickly, Mistress Page and William were next up. Meeting with the parson, Mistress Page asked him to test her son’s Latin, and Mistress Quickly, standing to one side, picked up on the rudest possible interpretation of the words. It was quite well done, although William (Ben Burman) looked big enough to have left school already, short trousers notwithstanding.

Off to the Ford house now, and Mistress Ford brought on a drinks trolley for the second seduction scene, pouring a large G&T each for herself and Mistress Page. The buck basket was placed to one side this time, and Falstaff hardly had a minute to work on Mistress Ford before Mistress Page came along to warn about Mr Ford’s return. Falstaff went into the ‘closet’ to change into the old woman’s clothes, and they did the transformation very nicely. The curtain became his dress, the canopy became a wide-brimmed hat, and Sir John was chased off stage by an infuriated Ford.

But before all of this, we had the fun of the buck basket. When the men came into the house, the two young men were just picking up the buck basket – to their relief, it was much lighter this time. Ford told them to put it down, and then began to search it. The clothes went everywhere, and many of them were sent in the audience’s direction: sitting in the centre of the front row, we were definitely in the target zone, and were briefly hidden behind a large petticoat. It was hilarious, and as there were plenty of garments in the box, it took Ford some time to realise that Falstaff wasn’t in there. Then came the revelation that the old woman of Ilkley was in the house, and after she had been chased out, the final search. The women didn’t laugh as much this time over their prank, and decided to tell their husbands everything.

They included the brief scene between the host of the Garter and Bardolph, and then returned to the Ford household, where the husbands and Sir Hugh were now in on the joke. Ford knelt to apologise to his wife and was warned by Page about going too far in submissiveness. They planned a final trick to put Sir John in his place, and in a couple of asides we learned of the different plans to marry Anne off to Slender and the doctor.

Back at the Garter, Peter Simple was enquiring after the “old woman, a fat woman” who had gone up to Sir John’s room. When Falstaff came down in his own clothes, he kindly passed on some messages from the old woman to Simple, and then the host learned that his horses had been stolen and that the guests he had been expecting were a bunch of conmen. Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius enjoyed telling him the bad news. Mistress Quickly returned to arrange another meeting with Mistress Ford, and while she spoke with Falstaff in his room, Fenton came on to ask for the host’s help to arrange his own wedding to Anne Page. Since the host was out of pocket over the fake Germans and Fenton was free with his money, he didn’t have to work too hard to get the host’s assistance. We also learned all the necessary details of the various plans to marry Anne, and so, once Falstaff had a quick word with Mr Brooke, we were ready for the final scene.

A ladder was set up on the left side of the stage, with a few trimmings to make it look a bit tree-like. Falstaff came on in his Herne the Hunter outfit, and it was very funny. His horns were made out of hockey and lacrosse sticks tied together and he had a pair of cricket pads on his chest. There were other sporting items about his person as well, but I’ve forgotten some of the detail. The two wives were also dressed up as deer, and Falstaff didn’t miss a beat when it turned out there were two wives instead of just one. The more, the merrier.

Of course, it wasn’t to be, because after a few seconds they heard a noise and the deer scuttled off, leaving Sir John alone to face the fairies. They clustered around the bench at first while Falstaff hid up the ladder, but after going through their schedule for the night, the Welsh fairy ‘smelt’ Falstaff, and they surrounded the ladder. The musicians came on at the right side of the stage, and as the fairies sang their song, Anne Page and her two doppelgangers were taken away on bicycles. Caius used the tandem, Slender was on a penny farthing, and Fenton had a bicycle with a side car.

Even with depleted numbers, Falstaff found the fairies intimidating – they were bursting balloons to represent the pinching. When they finally stopped, he came down the tree and the trick was revealed. The banter at Falstaff’s expense modulated into more general fun when Page pointed out that his daughter, by this time, was married to Slender. Unfortunately for him, Slender turned up immediately after that claim, and the lad who was with him was definitely not Anne. Mistress Page was equally sure that Doctor Caius was their new son-in-law, but he also turned up with a young man in tow. The final revelation, that Anne had indeed married Fenton, was ruefully accepted by the Pages, and served to soften the blow to Sir John. The final lines, about Mr Brooke lying with Mistress Ford, were well delivered, and while that couple ran off for some marital fun, the band struck up and they finished with a song and dance.

It was all very good fun, and from the post-show chat it was evident that the cast were enjoying themselves as much as we were. They weren’t having too much trouble changing theatres, just needing a bit of time to run through the play to get the hang of the space, and audiences all over were responding in much the same way. They’d made the changes to the place names, but weren’t overly concerned about locating the play in a ‘real’ place – the dialogue tells the story. Sometimes the wives have real problems stopping themselves laughing too much after the seduction scenes, and anything else they said I’ve forgotten. It was great fun, and I’d certainly recommend this production to anyone.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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