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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

WINDSOR WONDERLAND
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Stephen Harper, Desmond Barrit, Alexandra Gilbreath and Martin Hyder/ Ph: Pete Le May

Six years ago, Desmond Barrit, who’s played Trinculo, Malvolio and both masters in a sleight-of-hand Comedy of Errors for the RSC, was due to play Falstaff in a musical version of Merry Wives that was an embarrassing flop, despite Simon Callow replacing the indisposed Barrit and Judi Dench commandeering Mistress Quickly.
 
So this perfectly enjoyable but imperfectly designed modern-dress production by RSC debutant Philip Breen is in some ways reparation for that disaster. Barrit is on flowing, avuncular form, adding to his already considerable bulk in a padded checked suit with a top pocket of outsize cigars and a joviality as big as his belly.
 
He’s the ultimate barroom bore – except, of course, that we love the old rogue; Barrit’s reception on opening night was nothing short of ecstatic – in a society of dolts and snobs, teachers, clerics, and schoolboys that populate the only play (outside the histories) that Shakespeare actually located on home territory.
 
It is in fact a Windsor wonderland that we have here, moving from the Garter Inn to the chic suburban world of leather and glass in the Fords’ desirable residence, to the moonlit revels around Herne’s Oak in the great forest, where Falstaff is finally undone in a masque of sprites, badgers and Halloween-night superheroes.
 
John Ramm’s jealous Ford, for instance, who has hired Falstaff to fix him a date with his own wife – while disguised as a nerdy suitor in shades and a bad wig – turns up, in a superbly inappropriate flourish, as Superman. And the merry wives themselves – Alexandra Gilbreath’s deliciously lubricious Alice Ford and Sylvestra Le Touzel’s slyly prim and not so proper Meg Page – are costumed as woodland creatures, Page with an inviting pantomime faun’s rump and graceful hind legs.
 
This scene is magical enough, though by this time director Breen’s pacing has failed him, and the design of Max Jones blundered towards too many unsatisfactory solutions on the difficult new thrust stage; difficult, that is, for a play that needs a world of interiors before the spacious exhalations at the end.
 
The business of getting Barrit’s bulk in and out of the laundry basket is managed well enough, but the farcical elements of the play need doors banging as in Ray Cooney, and you can’t get the required laughs in a three-dimensional setting. The pop-up red telephone box is a mistake, and no one in the theatre has the faintest idea of what is going on in the makeover German beer cellar scene.
 
There’s good use made of a pool table, though, and the frantic exit of Barrit disguised as Ford’s maiden aunt, the Fat Woman of Brentford, just about works. David Charles as the Welsh parson with his “pribbles and prabbles” aims diligently at a flinty frostiness, while Anita Dobson, making an RSC debut as Mistress Quickly, scurries around rapidly, earning the soubriquet “Quicklegs.”
 
And there are deft touches from Stephen Harper as an accident-prone Bardolph falling hilariously off the pool table, and Bart David Soroczynski as CV2-driving Dr Caius, whose “by garde” lapses into “buggered” in time-honoured traditional style; the comedy of mispronunciation is a Shakespearean specialty in so many of the plays, especially this one.
 
But all the killer comedy really comes from the wives, the best Stratford pairing since Janet Dale and Lindsay Duncan in Bill Alexander’s famous “hairdryer” production. Ramm’s great jealous rage speeches are not manic enough, though he has a great physical reach on the stage, seeming to expand exponentially into each scene he occupies; but a great Ford on a par with, say, Ian Richardson or Ben Kingsley? Not sure about that.

 


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