Merry Wives of Windsor at The Stratford Festival
William Shakespeare‘s The Merry Wives of Windsor owes its existence, according to tradition, to Queen Elizabeth the First’s desire to see more of Falstaff, who had become an audience favorite in Shakespeare’s histories. Thank you, Queen Bess!
The play shows us Sir John Falstaff well past his military prime and plotting to ease his financial problems by making lascivious advances to two of the town’s respectable and well-off married women, Meg Page and Alice Ford. They quickly cotton to his absurd plan and conspire together to teach the old rascal a lesson. Complicating matters is Mr. Ford who becomes volcanically jealous when he catches wind of Falstaff’s wooing. In a subplot Mr. and Mrs. Page each want to marry their daughter, Anne, to different, but equally unsuitable men; Anne of course has ideas of her own.
Shakespeare deploys comic devices — narrow escapes, people hiding in closets and laundry baskets, ludicrous disguises — that are used in popular farces to this day. The plot culminates in a midnight meeting on Halloween in the deep woods where Falstaff thinks a threesome might be in the offing only to be terrified by the entire town disguised as goblins, fairies, and all manner of beasties. In the confusion, Anne Page’s unsuitable suitors are bamboozled and true love triumphs. Falstaff is humbled and order is restored.
Director Antoni Cimolino has transposed the play to the 1950s in a town that looks a lot like Stratford, right down to the Canada geese squawking as they fly overhead. This kind of reimagining has its pitfalls, but in this case it works remarkably well. He has also encouraged his cast to take the comic shtick to infinity and beyond. Cimolino has a gift for this sort of over-the-top comedy as he demonstrated in 2017’s enema-filled production of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (a.k.a. The Imaginary Invalid). For the most part it succeeds in Merry Wives, but not always.
Geraint Wyn Davies is, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant as Falstaff. He played the role in the Festival’s last mounting of the play in 2011 and he is even better this time around. Falstaff is a bundle, a very large bundle, of contradictions, self-delusional one moment, all too aware of his frailties the next. Wyn Davies conveys all this beautifully and with remarkable psychological realism given the absurdity of the situations. Designer Julie Fox has stuffed his costume with a massive gut and seldom has fat shaming been funnier. Cimolino has devised numerous ways to illustrate the challenges posed by Falstaff’s bulk, none funnier than when he winds up on his back in Mrs. Ford’s bed and cannot right himself.
Graham Abbey who was such a forceful presence as Aufidius in last year’s Coriolanus is here a nimble and manic farceur. The scene in which he leaps triumphantly on top of a massive clothes hamper believing he has captured Falstaff inside is one of the play’s highlights.
Wyn Davies and Abbey are reason enough to pay the price of admission, but there is other good acting on display. Brigit Wilson and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, respectively, are rock solid as the merry wives of the title. They must be the firm center around which all the madness swirls and they fill that role perfectly. Lucy Peacock, who played Mistress Ford in the 2011 production, does a deft turn as the go-between who sets much of the plot in motion.
There is solid work in supporting roles too. In the romantic subplot, Jamie Mac, one of Stratford’s most reliable comic actors, is delightfully goofy as the idiotic Slender, while Michael Spencer-Davis wrings every last laugh out of Slender’s aged relative, Justice Shallow. Mike Shara is charming in the small role of Fenton, who affects a beatnik-style beret to cover a massive mole on his forehead. Less successful is Gordon S. Miller’s shouted performance as the French Dr. Caius, Mrs. Page’s choice for her daughter’s hand. His body language is hysterically funny, which is just as well because his accent is impenetrable.
Julie Fox, who designed both sets and costumes, has done an admirable job of bringing 50s Stratford to life. Her perfectly detailed costumes run the gamut from proper middle class matrons and their straight-laced husbands, to butch bar owners (Shakespeare’s Host of the Garter is here a woman), to leather-clad greasers and what I assume is a Canadian version of a Teddy Boy (Randy Hughson as Pistol). The main set evokes a solidly middle-class Tudor-style home much like one you might pass while walking to the theatre. Jason Hand supplied the lighting. Berthold Carriere has written 50s-style songs with lyrics by the actress Marion Adler to serve as incidental music. If you didn’t read the program you might imagine the sound designer (Thomas Ryder Payne) had ransacked an old record collection.
The Stratford Festival distinguishes itself with a large company of actors who can speak Shakespeare’s sometimes tricky iambic pentameter with admirable clarity. Merry Wives of Windsor is almost entirely prose, which makes it all the more surprising that some performers, fortunately in lesser roles, fail to convey the meaning of most of their lines. This is the sort of thing that makes some people feel Shakespeare is “hard to understand” and may in turn explain why huge swaths of seats were empty at the performance I saw.