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.

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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

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – October 2012


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

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – September 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Globe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th September 2008

This is another production where I need to spend some time describing the set. Two walkways led out from either side of the stage, and each curved round and came in front of the stage, joining up with a large rectangular platform. Each walkway joined this platform at the sides, but staggered, and with stairs leading down to the pit beside them. The centre of the platform was simple wooden slats to begin with, but during some scenes, the central section rotated to bring up a small knot garden, with a love seat in the middle and a small flower bed in each corner. Very pretty. During the interval, the blank side was replaced with the stump of Herne’s oak, which stayed out of sight till the final scenes, so the garden was on view for most of this half. To give access to the small area between the stage and the platform, there were sections of the walkway which lifted up, I think. Apart from this, the stage was bare, but had the usual tables and chairs brought on as required.

We were in the upper gallery for the first time, and well round the side, so our view was much more restricted than I’m used to at the Globe. (We booked too late – again.) We were facing the right-hand pillar, and much of the performance was hidden by this. We couldn’t see the stage on the near side of the pillar at all, unless we stood up and risked falling on top of the people in front of us, and even then we couldn’t get more than a glimpse. The roof over the stage cut off most of the balcony, so I’m glad these seats were cheaper than usual.

This production, in Elizabethan dress, seemed to concentrate more on the two wives and their revenge on Falstaff. Not that the other parts were lacking in any way, but with Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as the two wives, and Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff, they were able to get full value out of the marvellous writing. This is the first Merry Wives we’ve seen since the musical version back in January 2007, and the first ‘regular’ one since the touring production in the Swan in 2003! I feel sure I’ve missed one somewhere, but that’s what our records say. Anyway, this version was very musical as well, and occasionally I found this a distraction, as the music started playing a few times before the dialogue had stopped and pretty much drowned it out.

It was a fairly standard production, and apart from Bardolph being completely cut, there were no remarkable stagings to mention, but the performances were very good, and had I been able to see more of them I would probably have rated this higher. As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed the tricks played on Falstaff, especially the way the two wives were practically incontinent with laughter as they played their ‘roles’ to perfection. That is, they were so over the top that only a fool like Falstaff would believe them, which made the whole thing much funnier. There was some poking and slapping that got a bit out of hand, but it didn’t ruin the ladies’ relationship in the long run. Andrew Havill as Ford/Brook was also excellent, and did a great job with his tortured expressions as the husband learns of his wife’s presumed unfaithfulness. At one point he ducked behind the far pillar, and although I couldn’t see much of him, it was clear he was throwing a serious strop before returning, much calmer, to continue talking with Falstaff.

Despite the difficulties, the dialogue was generally clear, although I felt some of the actors weren’t always including the upper gallery with their performances. I heard the lines about Falstaff sending his page to Mrs Page for the first time tonight (how did I miss them for all these years?), and Mistress Quickly’s prolonged discourse about Mrs Ford’s many lovers was marvellous, with Falstaff itching for her to get to the point. His “be brief” was said with feeling, and got a good laugh. Later on, during the wooing, his difficulties in getting up and down from a kneeling position were good fun, and I reckoned this story not only gave Queen Elizabeth another chance to enjoy Falstaff on stage, but also had relevance to her as a woman who had rebuffed many suitors herself. She probably wished they’d all been as easy to get rid of as Falstaff.

So, not the greatest view, but still an enjoyable performance, and a much better use of the extended stage. We’ll book earlier next time to avoid disappointment.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (2)


By: William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 31st January 2007

This was the last time of seeing this musical this time round, and one of the last times we’ll see a play in the main house as it is. Boo hoo. Although, as we were in the Gods, and the seats were neither as comfortable nor gave us as good a view as what we’re used to, the regret isn’t too strong – we’ll manage.

This was not just as good as before, it was even better. Firstly, we knew what to expect – we’d seen such a great performance at the Winter School. Secondly, we had a completely different view, and although we lost some of the detail, especially seeing the expressions, on the other hand we got a much better overview of the action, which helped enormously when there was a lot of action on stage – the final fairy scene, for example, was much clearer, and I suspect it was more due to our position than any change in performance, though of course I can’t be absolutely sure.

Thirdly, knowing this was our last time, and that we’re getting towards the end of the Complete Works Festival, and the end of the main house as we know it, made it all a bit more emotional. I noticed some changes in the performances – as if the cast have relaxed even more into their parts, and with relatively few performances left, are going even further with the business. There was more detail with Mistress Page and the first letter, and I noticed a number of other “upgrades” as we went through, though none I can remember for these notes, sadly – maybe they’ll come back to me later. One point I must note down tonight – the houses rotating into haystacks – I’m not sure if I noted that down before.

Our seats were quite uncomfortable in the first half – less room and less cushioned than downstairs. However, the couple next to us moved for the second half, so we were able to spread ourselves out and it was much easier to relax and enjoy the show. I still think they need to introduce the “Merry Wives” tune in the overture – it’s the main theme, and the one everyone’s going to come out singing or humming to themselves.

The audience seemed quite quiet for the first half – I wasn’t sure if we just weren’t hearing them so well up with the Gods, but they livened up for the second half, so maybe it just took time for them to get warmed up.

I’m still impressed by how well all the characters are introduced. It’s a complicated play, with lots of sub-plots, and although the priest and doctor never get round to exacting their revenge on the landlord of the Garter, everything seems much more straightforward in this version. I like the way Anne Page and Fenton are introduced to us in the traditional way of musical lovers, so we know they’re going to get together at the end. And the introduction of Henry IV dialogue in places makes the Mistress Quickly/Falstaff storyline work much better. So, apart from the quibble about introducing the main theme earlier, I find the whole adaptation pretty brilliant, and I do hope they revive it sometime soon – perhaps when they have the new main house?

One final point – I must remember to have a hanky ready if I see this again – I was sobbing heartily during Ford’s song asking forgiveness from his wife. Lovely.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (1)

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 5th January 2007

Another big change. This time, the cast seem to have got to grips with the production and given it a good shaking out. Everything gelled tonight. I could hear more of the words, the music fitted with the dialogue better, and the weaker singing voices had strengthened up. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and although the energy drops a little in the last quarter, I still found the whole experience much better than first time around. In fact, the musical aspects had improved so much that the “Merry Wives” song no longer seems the highlight that it was!

Specific changes to performances: Slender had developed even more in small touches, including kissing Mr Page when they meet for the first time. Alistair McGowan as Ford seems to be getting more expression into his performance, and his voice has definitely come on. His song to Mrs Page asking for forgiveness was very moving tonight, and I was reminded of The Taming of the Shrew in reverse. We had been warned that Judi Dench did something different every night when coming on at the back of the stage, but tonight was the same as we’d seen before – reacting to the size of the buildings with surprise and confusion.

Our seats were to the right of centre this time, across the aisle, and I actually preferred this, as I found I could see the whole of the stage in one glance, which is absolutely vital in a production where so much goes on. I spotted a lot more detail, although I still missed Dr Cauis’ performance between injecting himself in the neck and falling into the buck basket – if we get to see it again, I must look out for that. I saw so much that I hadn’t before, but I can’t be sure what was new and what I simply missed, so I’ll just include it all in the first set of notes.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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