Pros: This jauntily irreverent interpretation brings us about as close to a ‘real’ Shakespearean experience as we’re ever likely to get. An exuberant cast tease out big laughs with ease, whilst a minimal set is made to work to maximum effect.
Cons: The 1920s theme tends to whisper rather than ‘roar’, whilst a lack of real interplay between characters occasionally befuddles.
The Merry Wives have been plucked from Windsor and given a no-nonsense Northern makeover in this new touring production set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties. So when bumbling Falstaff (of Henry IV and V fame) sets out to boost his fading fortunes by seducing not one, but both of the wealthy friends, they’re not going to take it lying down. The farcical mayhem which ensues could (and probably did) provide the blueprint for any given sitcom, Carry On film or Alan Ayckbourn play set in Middle England.
Ensconced within the Rose Theatre’s compact ‘indoor Globe’ style auditorium, I can’t help but imagine that this production must epitomise, in almost every way, Shakespearean comedy as Shakespeare intended it. Admittedly, the generously padded bench seat from which I see the groundlings showered in dirty washing as a frenzied Ford searches for his wife’s ‘lover’, might be a little more Queen Liz than average Elizabethan. And sipping from a wine glass made from – gasp – actual glass while I’m about it, is enough to make me believe I’ve died and gone to theatre heaven.
Down on stage, the minimal set, larger-than-life acting and injection of Northern soul combine to produce something which feels both timeless and peculiarly modern. Penetrating the comic nuances of 400-year-old prose can be hard going, but a pacy, irreverent approach to the script draws plenty of first night belly laughs. Slapstick and choreographed set pieces are also used, although sparingly, to satisfying effect. Get ready for one of the best fairy scenes you’ve ever seen.
Whilst I enjoyed the drop-waisted summer dresses and tweed plus-fours, though, I did feel a little more could have been made of the ‘roaring twenties’ theme. Although we were treated to the odd Charleston kick to accent a comic high point, generally, the period styling felt like something of an afterthought. More crucially, whilst the company’s explosive comic style generally worked well (Jos Vantyler’s hapless, mustard-stockinged Slender being a particular delight), a true sense of connection between characters was lacking. This occasionally made keeping up with who was who, married to whom or pretending to be whom a challenge – with this much text, sometimes body language and intuition are all we have to cling to!
Overall, though, this is an entertaining, audience-pleasing take on an undeservedly neglected component of Shakespeare’s canon. After all, this play struck a blow for sisterhood centuries before Pankhurst et al. How many female characters (and, in particular, female characters over 30), contemporary or Shakespearean, have the last laugh on our stages today?
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Barrie Rutter
Producer: Northern Broadsides
Box Office: 020 8174 0090
Booking Link: http://www.rosetheatrekingston.org/whats-on/the-merry-wives
Booking Until: 26 March 2016