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Reviewed by:
  • The Merry Wives by William Shakespeare
  • Paul Innes
The Merry Wives. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Barrie Rutter. Northern Broadsides and The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, UK. April 19, 2016.

Shakespeare’s Windsor comedy is said to have been the result of a request from Queen Elizabeth for even more of Falstaff, the knight of excess from the three plays of the so-called Henriad. In this production, the play was updated by Northern Broadsides, a company well-known for keeping a deliberate distance from the metropolitan theatrical tastes of the English south. The combination of Shakespeare and Yorkshire produced a fresh, innovative, and irreverently vibrant reworking of the city play, with its title deliberately foreshortened.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is not often produced by modern theatre groups, perhaps because of its layered complexity. The two main characters of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, provide the major narrative strand as they manipulate and then gull poor old Sir John, while he tries and fails to do the same to them. However, there is also a whole series of other minor manipulations among various members of the ensemble cast. This presents something of a problem for a modern audience, since it is very easy to lose track of who is who, and who is doing what to whom. Barrie Rutter’s production responded by addressing the intricacies of the text directly; rather than shy away from them, this is a production that foregrounds them.

The play opened with a somewhat loose 1920s feel, especially in terms of costuming. Mistresses Page and Ford, however, had an energy to them as they tried to jog or play tennis; the props were mixed, with exercise machinery to hand, as well as the occasional drink. These might be characters of a certain age, but they showed plenty of movement in their interactions with each other, the other characters, and (especially) Rutter’s Falstaff. The company managed the various levels of the multiple plots by making full use of Shakespeare’s stereotypes. The French doctor and the Welsh parson were overplayed to comic effect, as was Master Ford’s jealousy.

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Nicola Sanderson (Mistress Page), Barrie Rutter (Falstaff), and Becky Hindley (Mistress Ford) in The Merry Wives. (Photo: Jackie Rodgers.)

This last element was used to good effect by the production to bind together the various complications that ensue, since Master Ford provides a lynchpin, as well as a great deal of physical comedy, as he searches for Falstaff in a huge basket of dirty laundry. Much of this ended up all over the stage and in the middle of the audience as well, incidentally breaking down the proscenium stage’s barriers between cast and theatregoers. Taking their cue from the Shakespearean “aside,” many of the performers directly addressed to the auditorium, which served the further purpose of making each figure memorable as each had a moment in the limelight.

The production tackled the various stage types with some gusto, marking the performance with Northern Broadsides’ trademark willingness to take on just about anything. Comic overacting added to the fun, with Doctor Caius’s atrocious Monty Python French accent and exaggerated actions vying with Sir Hugh Evans’s Welsh caricature, all deliberately overplayed. As the plots moved forward, the thread of the interaction between Falstaff and the two female leads took more and more precedence, and the improbable events that resulted were managed with some inventiveness. This lead to some memorable slapstick, especially when the servants tried to carry the enormously indomitable Sir John out of the house in the basket in the first instance, and then when he was disguised as the fat woman of Brentford, here rendered as the old woman of Ilkley (in Yorkshire). A wardrobe of cloth hangings became a set of clothes and a large floppy hat, and Master Ford beat “her” off the stage with a golf club.

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Becky Hindley (Mistress Ford), Barrie Rutter (Falstaff), and Nicola Sanderson (Mistress Page) in The Merry Wives. (Photo: Jackie Rodgers.)

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The attention to detail paid off with the final emerging plotline, the marriage...