Merry Wives Of Windsor
Rachel Kavanaugh's sunny production for the RSC draws on some skilled and personable performers and a late-1940s setting to give the play a warm, human reality it sometimes lacks, though at the expense of some of the broad slapstick theatregoers might expect from the play.
This is the one about how the fat, debauched Falstaff is convinced he's irresistible to women, and how Mistress Ford and Mistress Page use that delusion to repeatedly foil and humiliate him, while also curing Mister Ford of his unwarranted jealousy.
The updated setting allows Richard Cordery to escape from the cliched image of Falstaff. Well-dressed and not especially debauched, this is a Falstaff who is not absurdly deluding himself that he might be attractive to women. (The fact that Cordery is very tall helps, making him come across as an impressively big man, not a comically obese one.) This adds a piquancy to his repeated humiliations without losing the humour.
The two wives, Claire Carrie (Ford) and Lucy Tregear (Page), are played as believable women of their era, so comfortable and secure in their roles of suburban wives that they can toy with their would-be seducer without any taint of danger. Their merriness is just that - a sense of innocent fun with no darker tinge.
But the production is limited somewhat by an odd sort of miscasting in the secondary roles. Tom Mannion (Ford), Alison Fiske (Quickly) and Greg Hicks (Caius) are three of my favourite character actors. But none is a natural clown, and the gap shows.
Mannion brings a warm reality to Ford by making him more than a bit dim, totally out of his depth and more befuddled by his fear that his wife might stray than frightened or enraged by it. He thus remains sympathetic even at his most absurd. But if the more we care about him, the less we are inclined to laugh at him, one of the usually reliable sources of laughter in the play is muted.
Fiske and Hicks work very hard at being funny, with silly voices and, in his case, a Clouseau-like mock French accent that is all but incomprehensible. But their visible effort overshadows their results - we see actors trying to be funny, rather than characters who are funny.
This is a less-than-perfect production. But, like all of
Shakespeare's comedies, this one has such an abundance of good spirits
and comic touches that even a less-than-perfect production can capture
you and send you out into the night feeling happy.
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Review - Merry Wives of Windsor - RSC Old Vic 2003