The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Sept 22 2018. Dec 7 2018 – Jan 5 2019 at the Barbican in London.
It is said that Shakespeare invented the sitcom with this tale of tubby tankard-toting knight Sir John Falstaff and those whimsical women of Windsor.
If that’s the case, The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC is Shakespeare taking on sitcom taking on reality TV. Here, director Fiona Laird has fused middle-class Berkshire suburbia at the turn of the 17th century with the fake tans, teeth and err… eyelashes of 21st-century Essex.
Here’s the RSC’s own brief synopsis: “Sir John Falstaff plans to hustle his way to comfortable retirement by seducing the wives of two wealthy men. But it’s the women of Windsor who pull the strings and in a world of wealth, glamour and ‘well jel’ wives, they finally tell Sir John to ‘shut up’.”
Don’t be put off. I hate The Only Way Is Essex. I loved The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The costumes are crossbreeds; think beaded corsets teamed with garish leggings and bustled pink Chanel. Tudor meets TOWIE. The bling is blinding. The Essex accents grating.
It’s energetic and exaggerated, slapstick and silly . And it works.
David Troughton’s big-headed, ignorant Falstaff (and his constantly protruding codpiece) draws the majority of the laughter – and there’s a lot of that, especially when the French doctor wraps his tongue around things.
But it’s the women that command the audience.
Mistress Page (Rebecca Lacey), Mistress Ford (Beth Cordingly) and the gender-swapped character of the Hostess of the Garter (played by Katy Brittain) shine even brighter than Slender’s day-glo Hollywood smile.
There are a couple of lulls in the frenetic pace but things quickly get back on track when the necessary exposition is done. Merry Wives will never be a Shakespeare favourite (it’s said – and alluded to in this production – that it was written in just two weeks at the behest of Elizabeth I), but Fiona Laird’s TOWIE-esque interpretation is a laugh-out-loud romp through the original text with a few modern tweaks. The pink wheelie bin probably being the most obvious.
Some reviewers have questioned the relocation to Essex, but swapping a Windsor accent for an Essex brogue and blinging up proceedings could put people in seats who might not have otherwise thought Shakespeare was for them. And isn’t that great?
The Stratfordblog verdict
Taking a little TOWIE inspiration myself: at the end of the day, don’t get me wrong, not being funny, but behave yourself and don’t swerve this production. It’s reem.
The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Sept 22 2018. Dec 7 2018 – Jan 5 2019 at the Barbican in London. Book tickets here.
Romeo and Juliet is on until late September in Stratford-upon-Avon too. Read the review.