The Theatreguide.London Review
The Merry Wives Of Windsor
Barbican Theatre Winter 2018-2019
recently had occasion to note how very much it helped a farce to have
everyone acting in the same style and convincingly inhabiting the
same reality. There are things in this new RSC Merry Wives to amuse
and entertain, but the overpowering effect is of an object lesson in
what is lost when those stylistic connections aren't there.
Fiona Laird has created a string of scenes and moments, but they
don't hang together as a coherent whole.
can start with the
setting. Having chosen modern dress, director Laird can't seem to
decide whether her Windsor is a real place, a TV sitcom town or a
day-glo Christmas Panto stage set, or in which of those worlds her
and Mrs Ford are a semi-parody downmarket Essex
couple, while their neighbours the Pages are older and more
conservative. You would expect Mrs Page to grumble about how the
Fords lower the tone and property values of the neighbourhood rather
than being best pals with Mrs F.
in the subplot young
Fenton evidently believes himself to be in a Panto, beaming at the
audience at every entry as if expecting to be greeted like Buttons,
and elsewhere there's actually a bit of audience singalong.
comedy has several subplots, but at its core are the
titular women playing a string of humiliating practical jokes on the
local Dirty Old Man as punishment for his bothering them with his
are actually three episodes of humiliating Falstaff,
and at least two are badly bungled. The most successful is the set-up
of the first, as the two wives have to play a scene for the skulking
Falstaff to overhear, and Rebecca Lacey (Page) and Beth Cordingly
(Ford) act the scene in exactly the inept way the characters would,
giving us the double joke, at Falstaff's expense and at theirs.
the climax of that sequence, like the second a comic chase in which
Falstaff tries to get away, and the third episode, a public unmasking
and humiliation of the randy old knight, are all badly mishandled by
Slapstick and physical comedy absolutely require precise timing and choreography – the jokes lie entirely in how perfectly people either bump into each other or miss each other. But Laird and 'physical comedy director' Toby Park just seem to have people rushing around randomly, without shape, rhythm or any comic effect beyond confusion.
similar half-heartedness runs through the
production. Mr Ford is paranoid about his wife's imagined
infidelities and driven to extremes of jealousy. He could be played
as sad, ridiculous or perfectly reasonable, but a director and actor
really have to choose one and run with it, not vacillate among the
three as Vince Leigh does.
what appear to be token gestures toward
setting up running gags, Fenton is (with no support in the text) made
clumsy, tripping and falling down at least once in every scene, while
foolish Slender gets repeatedly slapped in the head by his annoyed
pratfalls have to have an acrobatic element to them or
they're just somebody falling down, and the smacking should have an
almost ritual quality to it or else it's just a random bit of
so we come to Falstaff. Granted, the
character as written here is a somewhat watered-down version of the
monster of appetite in the Henry IV plays. But David Troughton can't
seem to find much joy of life in the guy at all.
to be going through the motions of debauchery more out of habit than
desire. (There's a potentially interesting characterisation there,
but like too much else in this production, it's not followed up on.)
Troughton looks oddly uncomfortable in his fat suit, never
letting us believe that the girth is his and not the costumer's.
Beth Cordingly gives some hints that she knows Mrs Ford is a bit of a bimbo and would like to be allowed to play her more broadly, and you sense Vince Leigh wanting to enjoy Ford's mad jealousy more wildly. The characters in the various subplots are all played by very talented actors trying very hard to be funny and not succeeding.
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