Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 31 October, 2002

Director Rachel Kavanaugh has developed something of a taste in recent summers at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park for productions of Shakespeare comedies set more or less in the 1940s. They aren't always unqualified successes, but her RSC Stratford staging of The Merry Wives Of Windsor as an Ealing comedy is an absolute treat.

Merry Wives now stands as a bit of an oddity among the comedies. It resurrects and transports in time Sir John Falstaff (whose death had already taken place offstage in Henry V), supposedly at the express request of Queen Elizabeth I; in some ways its resolutely English setting renders it paradoxically more distant than semi-mythical locations such as Illyria or Arden. By locating the action on the Swan's stage within a faux-nostalgic view of the English suburban community, Kavanaugh restores the recognisability which has been eroded by the passage of four centuries whilst also conferring on it a patina of more obvious fantasy. It's a win-win decision.

As Falstaff, led a merry dance in his comically foredoomed attempts to seduce Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, Richard Cordery has the physical stature to carry the necessary extra padding without looking like a cartoon and the dignity of demeanour to bear the endless indignities he must suffer, many of which come out of his own mouth. His normal blazers and waistcoats serve to emphasise the absurdity when he finds himself flung into the Thames with a basketful of laundry or forced to flee Ford's house disguised as the fat witch of Brentford. Masters Ford and Page are turned out in businessmen's pinstripes and bowlers, their wives in twin-sets, Falstaff's minions in threadbare battledress.

Michael Gardiner succeeds in making the comedy-Welshness of parson Sir Hugh Evans sound more or less plausible, but is comprehensively outdone by Greg Hicks, eschewing his usual sonorousness to play Dr Caius with a French accent so ludicrous as to make Inspector Clouseau sound like the late Queen Mother. Hicks particularly relishes the doctor's repeated oath of "by gar" (i.e. by God occurring some thirty times in the text) coming out suspiciously like "bugger!" Alison Fiske plays Mistress Quickly as two parts Irene Handl to one of Dot Cotton, and Tom Mannion is as delicious as ever in the role of jealous husband Ford, judging the comedy of his paranoia with pinpoint precision and also making use of his native Scottish accent when disguised as "Master Brooke".

In the other plot strand, that of the wooing of Page's young daughter Anne by multiple suitors, Chuk Iwuji's American accent and flying jacket imply discreetly that Anne's beloved Fenton is a Yank air ace stationed somewhere in the area. Iwuji's casting is largely, but not entirely, colour-blind; in another astute touch, father Page's deliberate line "She is no match for you" is followed by an awkward silence as all realise but none address the issue of race. (It's also momentarily disconcerting for another reason to see Hannah Young's Anne snogging Fenton whilst in school uniform.)

The climactic midnight scene at Herne's Oak in Windsor Great Park is peopled by "fairies" in trick-or-treat costumes complete with jack-o'-lanterns: the perfect finishing touch for a Hallowe'en opening night, and the seasonal cherry on top of a production which is simply flawless in both conception and execution.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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