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Review: The Globe’s Merry Wives of Windsor (****)

The Globe production of The Merry  Wives of Windsor is available:

For streaming from The Globe Player for £4 / ~$6
For download as an MP4 from The Globe Player for  £8 / ~$12
As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for £19.99
As a DVD from Amazon.com for $19.59
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.

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Our Bottom Line:

[This] is an evening of light-hearted amusement with loads of farcical fun.

Our Review (****):

The Merry Wives of Windsor is very different from most of Shakespeare’s plays. It doesn’t fit in to the usual categories of comedies (though it is a comedy), histories, or tragedies. The story has it that it was written at the request of Elizabeth I, who wanted to see ‘Sir John Falstaff in love.’

In the play, there is a character called Sir John Falstaff (though he is not the same personality we know from Henry IV Part I and II). And he is courting ladies – not one, but two – but he doesn’t appear to be in love.

The play is a brilliantly constructed farce, which gave birth to a tradition that reaches down to the modern TV sitcom. It covers aspects of human experience that Shakespeare doesn’t normally cover. Here be no tragic heroes, doomed to a tragic end, and the focus of the play is not the young couple who triumphantly get it together against the wishes of the girl’s parents.

Instead Shakespeare explores married life – something he doesn’t explore in many of his plays. Of course Macbeth and Lady M. are a couple, but hardly in the normal run of couples, obsessed as they are with ambition.

But here we have two middle-aged couples, living ‘middle-class’ normal lives, whose relationships Sir John attempts to disturb for monetary gain. The two wives, receiving identical love-letters from Sir John, decide to make a fool of the gross knight by encouraging his advances, only to give him the most appalling humiliations. The two husbands respond differently. Mr Page loves and trusts his wife and responds sensibly to Falstaff’s advances. But Mr Ford (aka Brook) becomes jealous and ends up as humiliated by his jealousy as Falstaff is by his advances.

The lovely Anne Page

The lovely Anne Page

So the play turns into a study of jealousy and love in couples, further complicated by the Pages’ possessive behaviour towards their daughter, the lovely Anne Page, and her marriage partner.

I directed this play, back in 2008, and chose it because it made ordinary women the heroes of the play, and because it’s very funny. So I was interested to see what The Globe made of it.

The set uses the Globe’s stage in standard form: a bare empty stage; two pillars holding up the balcony, and a back-set which represents a Tudor house, or a Tudor Inn – The Garter – where The setFalstaff is staying. A passage has been built out into the pit, with a larger playing space on an island in the centre, which can be turned into the garden where various people meet, and for the finale, the oak tree where Herne the Hunter meets. There is a bridge to the right of the island, primarily, I suspect, to allow the audience to get close to the stage. With this very simple set, the focus tends to be on the wonderful Elizabethan costumes.

The entertainment starts with the musicians, onstage playing folk music, before retreating to the balcony as the play starts. The music carries on throughout the play in the form of songs which have been added to the play. The play starts with the company singing ‘So merrily’; Falstaff gets a couple of songs; Anne Ford and Fenton sing a love duet; there’s the traditional song of the Fairies round Herne’s Oak; and for the finale, the cast sing “The Flowers in May”, with the cast in couples, and Falstaff surrounded by children. All this music adds a feeling of folk celebration which adds enormously to the evocation of ‘Merry England’ which suits the play so well. It is also a delight to see children used in the play.

Mistress Quickly meets Sir John at The Garter

Mistress Quickly meets Sir John at The Garter

The first half of the play is used to set up the situations which are going to be the farcical set-pieces of the second half. So the humour in the first half mostly consists of verbal humour: Anne Ford ‘has brown hair and speaks very like a woman’; Mrs Quickly, the messenger between the Merry Wives and Sir John, has a continuous flow of malapropisms; and Dr Caius’ English accent is another continuous source of laughter.

The cast of this production are universally strong: the large and pompous Sir John, continually deflated; the Merry Wives delighting in fooling Sir John

Brook: "God be praised for my jealousy!"

Brook: “God be praised for my jealousy!”

– and their husbands; the jealous Ford / Brook continuously searching for his cuckold’s horns. But all the cast play their roles with humour and professionalism.

The interactions with the audience are not as developed as they have been in many productions at The Globe. Most of the cast talk to them, but the only real bit of audience business is when Mine Host of The Garter, goes fishing in the audience and catches a fair-sized salmon.

So, watching  The Globe’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a different experience from going to most Shakespeare plays. Perhaps without the depth of the rest of the Shakespearean canon, it is an evening of light-hearted amusement with loads of farcical fun. If you like that style, this is one of the best examples.

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You can find more reviews of Shakespeare productions at the Globe at:

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The Merry Wives compare notes from Sir John

The Merry Wives compare notes from Sir John

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