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The Juice Runs in Shakespeare’s Saucy Romp: The Merry Wives of Windsor

9 August 2017

The Merry Wives of Windsor

by William Shakespeare

YAT at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre, 8th to 10th August

Review by Mark Aspen

Sir John Falstaff is everybody’s loveable rouge, and was probably Queen Elizabeth I’s too.  A tradition, albeit first mentioned in writing nearly century after her death, has it that Good Queen Bess wanted to see Falstaff in love, and so commissioned Shakespeare to write more about the naughty hedonist of the two Henry IV plays.  Royal Command performance or no, Falstaff was certainly a favourite of the great unwashed groundlings, who clamoured for a resurrection of their rotund anti-hero, for whom they had shed buckets of tears on hearing, in Henry V, Mistress’ Quickly’s description of his demise.

Either way, or both, what we have in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a good rollicking knock-about, and the YAT company certainly plays to the strengths of its raison d’être, in its pre-Edinburgh Fringe preview.  It is no mean feat to condense a full five-act play down to the 55 minutes necessitated by the raw conditions out on the Fringe, but YAT have done so consummately.

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The adaptation is the joint brainchild of directors Sarah Dowd and Lizzie Lattimore, a creative pair fresh from the success of achieving three Swan Award nominations for their Titanic, the Musical, seen on the main stage at Hampton Hill Theatre last November.  Remarkably, they are also responsible for the inspired costume design, which sets this Merry Wives accurately in the Windsor of the late 1950s.

Shakespeare deliberately kept The Merry Wives of Windsor firmly lowbrow, with no elaborate verse, almost no verse at all, and lots of silly foreign accents, like Franglais and, er … Welsh.  YAT has run with this idea, so that Mistress Ford and husband are the Fords of Dagenham, whilst Mistress Page and husband are definitely Windsor and Eton Riverside.

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Mistresses Ford and Page are the eponymous merry wives and, especially in this hard-pruned version, the storyline largely revolves around Falstaff’s abortive attempts to seduce these two middle-aged ladies.  In a commanding performance, Joanna Leppink makes Mistress Page a force to be reckoned with, whilst Rebecca Tarry is an arresting Mistress Ford, equally daunting.   Together they form tight-paced duo, their acting engaged and energetic.  We all know that Falstaff will not crack these defences, even before the merry wives’ tricks are unleashed on the hapless reprobate.

 

The action is motivated by the differing emotions of the un-cuckolded husbands.  Gabriel Burns showed us an old-school-tie Page, phlegmatic, confident in himself, whereas Arran Southern’s Ford is a self-made man, perhaps one who would not be adverse to bending the rules a bit, but unsure of his standing … and of his wife.  It is his jealousy that triggers Falstaff’s misadventures.  Ford’s meeting with Falstaff, designed to uncover the truth, goes drastically awry.   Disguised as Master Brooke (another suitor of Mistress Ford), Southern nicely differentiates Ford’s alter ego, relishing the humour of the farce that develops.

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Meanwhile the romantic sub-plot bubbles away underneath.  The Pages’ desirable young daughter, Anne, played with utterly charming coyness by Emily Coates, is being wooed for her hand in marriage by Fenton, a penurious young gentleman, who is in love with her.  Freddy Gaffney plays Fenton with an intense sincerity and certainly looks the part (uncannily in the style of the youthful Prince Phillip).  However, Anne has other suitors, looking to marriage in order to gain wealth or status.  Shallow, a magistrate from Gloucestershire of three-score years, (played with mock gravitas by Joe Evans) presents his cousin Slender, whom Anne calls a fool and says she would rather be “bowled to death with turnips”.  Alex Farley’s Slender is a tank-top toting turnip, entertainingly played as a rather thick bumpkin, besotted by Anne: more fun with accents.  Anne’s other suitor is Dr Caius, a French physician, pushy and flamboyant: even more fun with accents.  Josh Clarke, assertive in this role, extracts the full humour from the part.  (However, one or two ad-libbed “bugg-euer”s would have given the flavour without over-peppering the lines.)

It all gets drastic when the volatile Caius, “the doctor of the body” challenges the Welsh pastor, Sir Hugh Evans, “the doctor of the soul”, convincingly played, as one might expect, by Gwithian Evans.  Their duel is fought, not with rapiers, but out on the local golf-course with crossed No 1 irons, with hilarious results.

The whole cast seems to have just walked in, put on their characters and simply become the part.  This is certainly true for Cath Bryant as a pragmatic and sophisticated Mistress Quickly and Jennie Hillard as the Hostess, who makes quite a packet playing both ends against the middle.  The Hostess is a cross-cast Host of the Garter Inn, and there are a good few cross-cast roles, including the veteran soldiers of the Henry plays, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, now reduced, in Shakespeare’s description, to sharpers.

Indeed there are many sharpers in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but none so sharp as the much derided and much beloved Sir John Falstaff.  Liam Hurley excels in this central role as the pot-bellied rogue, with great comic timing, great expression and huge physicality.  Joints crack with arthritic wooing, lips smack in relishing a bottle port, thighs tremble at the thought of erotic foreplay, or, as he puts it “the prologue of our comedy”.  As an arch-epicure and arch-lecher, Falstaff is easy prey to the honey traps set up by the merry wives.  Having once escaped the jealous husband in a laundry basket, only to be dumped into a wet ditch, he is not so much a basket-case to be caught a second time, so then escapes disguised as old fat woman of Brentford, Mother Prat.  But Ford hates this in-law of his with such a vengeance that he beats “her” soundly.  However, he pushes his luck a third time, going in the forest as a satyr, expecting a ménage-à-trois with Mistresses Ford and Page.  Hurley tackled all this with great vigour, bringing out the quintessence of Falstaff, his irrepressible belief in himself.  As Falstaff says, “and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking”.

With vivacious attack, fast pace, and a wide sense of fun, the YAT company unashamedly plays to the gallery, pulling out all the juicy bits from Shakespeare’s saucy romp.

If you see just one Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Fringe, then this should be the one.

Mark Aspen

August 2017

Photographs by Jon Constant

Editor’s Note:  YATs Merry Wives of Windsor runs at the Edinbugh Fringe in The Space, Niddry St (Venue 9)  from 14th to 19th August .  See details here

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From → Drama, Reviews

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