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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
at Shakespeare’s Globe

LIARS, LOVERS AND CLOWNS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Serena Evans, Christopher Benjamin and Sarah Woodward/ Ph: John Tramper

A tune was playing rather incongruously in my head during this revival of Shakespeare’s feel good show. Incongruous, that is, until the lyrics came. And then I realized, why the tune.
 
“Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns; bring on the liars, lovers and clowns.”
 
Though written for a very different show (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum) you would be hard pushed to better describe Shakespeare’s comedy populated with not royalty but the middle classes of middle England, than Sondheim’s lyric.
 
This comedy is said to have been created by order of Elizabeth I because she so enjoyed Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. Shakespeare obliged with a play that ditches upper classes and royal courts. It has a love story to warm a few cockles, but central is fat Falstaff (he doesn’t really do stage left or right) who is led a humiliating merry dance by the two wives he idiotically attempts to seduce. Meanwhile the jealous husband of one of them is taught an equally harsh lesson on trust.
 
It might have made good sense for Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole to have added to his current acclaimed productions of the Henry IV plays a new Merry Wives. It could have also starred his current Falstaff, Roger Allam. But Christopher Luscombe’s production, first seen at this open air venue in 2008 and due to tour the United States this autumn, is such a beautifully staged piece of comic theatre, you cannot fault the decision to bring back a show whose comic timing is now embedded in the muscle memory of its cast and whose Falstaff is an irresistibly charismatic and cuddly rogue. Played by Christopher Benjamin sporting a full silvery beard, he could double as Santa, though you would worry that he would steal more presents than he gives.
 
There is, of course, a light-as-feather word play that weaves its way through the multi-layered plot. The usual malapropisms abound and rebound. But what makes smiles broaden into grins is Falstaff’s exquisitely delivered humiliation.
 
It is every bit as creative, if not quite as cruel, as that endured by Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Falstaff’s crime, though, of sexual presumption is the same. Or at least similar. For unlike Malvolio, entrapment is not needed to set this buffoon on a trail of serial follies that see him avoid a jealous husband by first hiding in a laundry basket, then disguising himself as an old hag and finally, at the wives’ behest, don antlers as the mythic hunter Herne only to be tormented by children dressed as fairies.
 
Janet Bird’s design brings to life the ornate but often remote Globe stage with a colourful ritual of costume and dance. But the key to Luscombe’s production lies in recognising that, in form and content, Merry Wives is at heart a sitcom. Visual gags are suitably conspicuous. The scene in which the servants attempt to remove the laundry basket containing the fat knight is a moment of purest and hilarious slapstick.
 
And when the wives (Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward) set up their unwanted suitor for one of his falls, there is a quite needless but very funny episode of mock horror (never mind why) during which Evans’ Mrs Page delivers a series of pull-yourself-together shakes and face-slaps to her co-conspirator. Woodward’s Mrs Ford stoically takes it all (presumably) on the assumption that somehow the punishment will be past down to the hiding Falstaff, only more heavily. And she’s right, it will.
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