If Shakespeare had thought longer about the title of his lusty romp, The Merry Wives of Windsor, he’d have come to the conclusion that the geography was all wrong. There’s not much comedy to be had from the good and great (though rather staid) middle class families of Royal Berkshire.
But shift the location up north and, well, you’re pretty much in Last of the Summer Wine country where there are laughs a plenty to be had from the redoubtable sturdy matrons who rule the roost and their timorous husbands who indulge in silly pranks and daft ideas.
Mixing flat caps with Falstaff is inspired and who better to do the story justice than that powerhouse of Yorkshire theatre, Northern Broadsides? The company is now touring with its riotous The Merry Wives. Yes, the ‘Windsor’ has been dropped, and rightly so, for the humour is as broad as the country is long.
I caught the show at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, but the co-production, with Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre, still has another seven venues on its UK tour (dates below) and I’d recommend it.
NB’s artistic director Barrie Rutter returns to a favourite role as the portly Falstaff, a dirty old roué whose pursuit of the flesh proves his undoing.
Waddling around the stage in an enormous fat-suit looks hard work but is a necessary evil for this very physical comedy featuring one of The Bard’s great and exuberant, larger-than-life characters.
It’s a gift of a role and one which Rutter does proud. The outrageous knight leers, splutters and demeans himself, and he is endlessly humbled – yet Falstaff comes through largely unscathed to play his part as Prince Hal’s confidente in Shakespeare’s later Henry plays.
But, I must admit, I dislike the sadistic nature of the story. It’s nothing sort of outright bullying purely because of a man’s size, which in Shakespeare’s time, would have marked him as a person of stature and wealth who could afford to live well.
Theatre doesn’t come more fattist than this. If Falstaff had looked like Tom Hiddleston or James Norton his bawdy attentions of a town’s womenfolk would have been enthusiastically welcomed but his gross proportions make him a thing to be reviled and his punishment is out of all proportion to his crime.
There’s a scene towards the end when Falstaff’s tormentors turn on him and their invective is both nasty and cruel – yet Falstaff bounces back and doesn’t seem to mind as much as me that he has been ridiculed and humiliated.
The Merry Wives is a bawdy, tangled tale of love, and it transcends both location and age. The story is a template for any number of modern day sitcoms and romcoms where randy old men chase other men’s wives and young love faces insurmountable hurdles before making it to the finishing post.
This production pitches the story in Yorkshire in a summer of the early 1920s, when women wore white floaty dresses, the middle class men donned their striped blazers and the landed gentry sported bright tweeds and plus-fours.
Falstaff wants to get his leg over two married women of the parish and, stupidly, writes them identical notes. The best friends, Mistress Margaret Page and Mistress Alice Ford, formidable middle-aged women who are revolted at the idea of his attention, discover his game and decide to punish him.
His wanton desire is used against him as time and again he gives in to temptation and is shown no mercy.
Alice Ford’s husband, Frank, suspects his wife is having a fling with the gargantuan knight, and, fearing being cuckolded, sets out to expose the affair.
Meanwhile, love’s young dream, between the pretty Ann Page and the dapper man-about-town Fenton, faces a rocky future. Her father wants to marry her off to dim young, fogey, Slender yet her mother has her heart set on a ridiculous French doctor as a suitor for her daughter.
Oh la la. Shakespeare never liked the French and Andy Cryer’s absurd Doctor Caius is a the epitome of that distaste. A pompous, splendidly ridiculous, caricature he is triumphantly played with ‘Allo ‘Allo gusto to maximum comedic effect.
The entire cast seem to relish the rich dialogue and ludicrous situations they find themselves in. Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson are gloriously creative as the scheming wives, plotting Falstaff’s downfall in-between duping their own husbands.
Jos Vantyler’s wonderfully deadpan, but impeccably dressed, Abraham Slender is a treat. His affected indifference at being wheeled out to marry Ann is lovely to watch. The voice is reed-thin and one-note, the character devoid of all depth. He’s dull, vain, selfish but is landed gentry so perfect for social-climbing George (Roy North).
There are typical Shakespearean sub-plots involving the menfolk who play pranks and mislead each other (just because they can) but they pale into insignificance compared to the ploy’s of the women in the piece.
It’s all gloriously silly, as close as dammit to a farce – though thankfully Falstaff keeps his trousers up – and confidently directed by Barrie Rutter. Another success for Northern Broadsides which has come up with a rich domestic comedy to celebrate the genius of our premier playwright, Will Shakespeare.
Remaining 2016 Tour Dates
April 5–16, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds April 19-23, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham April 26–30, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough May 4–7, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield May 10–14, Yvonne Arnaud, Guilford May 17–21, York Theatre Royal May 24-28, Liverpool Playhouse.
The Merry Wives
Rich, ribald & hilariously funny. Flat caps & Falstaff from Northern Broadsides in Shakespeare’s lusty romp, The Merry Wives.