“Hang the trifle, woman”
I think I only made it Stratford once last year, partly a consequence of so much of the RSC’s work playing in London as part of one festival or another, but once the casting was announced for The Merry Wives of Windsor, I knew I would be making the trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre once again. This production of Shakespeare’s comedy of middle-class trials and tribulations is in modern dress but the reference point is closer to the British sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s and as with many of those television shows, it has its high points and its low points.
Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel were thankfully the production’s highlight as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively. I’ve long been a devotee of Gilbreath and she remains an utter joy to watch on the stage. Superficially she’s something of an Essex wife here but we soon see the playful intelligence that lies behind the animal print and there’s much to enjoy as she deploys her flirtatious verve and feminine wiles – her final costume nearly converted me I tell you. And the contrast against Le Touzel is well worked: though a doughtier figure born of country life, they make believable firm friends and there’s a lovely constancy to the emotiveness with which she speaks, she touches the heart just as effectively as she tickles the ribs.
But for me, the rest of Phillip Breen’s production never really quite lives up to the markers set by this pair. I wanted to like Anita Dobson’s Mistress Quickly far more than I actually did; none of the younger performers made any lasting impression on me and whilst John Ramm is amusing as the highly suspicious Ford, I found a blandness coming from the rest of the male players. Part of this undoubtedly comes from the play itself though, no amount of updating can disguise its idiosyncrasies and given the 3 hours plus running time, little attempt has been made to cut or substantially reshape it, though perhaps one should be looking to companies other than the RSC for such innovation.
So there are extended scenes about how stupid foreigners are and fantastical fancy-dress sequences in the park which tested the patience and severely stretched the concept respectively, and not really convincing me that there is a huge amount of potential in this play. But also there is Falstaff, and as heretical as it may be to say it, I don’t really get all the fuss about him as a character. When played well as in the recent Globe productions, he can be brilliant but this has to be earned and Desmond Barritt never really quite got there. I didn’t really find him funny nor see any sense of tragedy underlying the sheer misguidedness of his beliefs and so was left a little underwhelmed by this Merry Wives despite how good the merry wives were themselves.