Merely Theatre are a busy bunch. Not only are they still touring their productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep, but they’ve also recently revived their A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon – and for the past two nights they’ve debuted a production of the rarely played The Merry Wives of Windsor at south London’s Theatre N16.
Written late in the 16th century, reportedly to satisfy Elizabeth I’s wish to see Falstaff in one more play, it’s a bawdy comedy full of innuendo, tricks and marriage. Co-director Simon Grujich describes it as being like a Shakespeare pantomime, and you can really see why! It’s a fun and frivolous affair that suits Merely’s aptitude for comedy and ensures an entertaining evening for everyone.
Falstaff plans to seduce Mistresses Page and Ford, but when they both receive the same ‘love’ letter from him they conspire to take their revenge. Rather than simply denying him, they decide to lead him on in order to humiliate him; Mistress Ford’s extremely jealous husband unwittingly assists in their tricks, requiring Falstaff to be secreted from Mistress Ford’s chamber in increasingly inventive ways. The final plot sees both wives and their husbands join together to publicly humiliate him. Alongside this, Anne Page is the subject of attention from three suitors: Slender (favoured by her father), Dr Caius (her mother’s candidate) and Fenton (Anne’s love match). Who will win through?
Ultimately a fairly simple premise, along with a subplot, but as it swiftly descends into farce it makes the play seem a bit more complicated than it actually is. And it is perfect material for Merely Theatre – their gender-blind casting policy brings more women to the stage, and despite a lack of costumes each character is quickly and effectively defined.
There’s also opportunity for engaging with the audience, including some participation when Roger and James were called upon to help take Falstaff out in the laundry basket. James proved a popular extra, returning to the stage a few times throughout the night.
The performance space also lends itself to inventive direction from Simon Grujich, Scott Ellis and Courtney Larkin. With a balcony and several different doors to play with, it almost feels like it’s in the round – quite appropriate, with it being the Globe Space.
It’s a rather large cast, full of natural comics who do a brilliant job of supporting the main action. Ailis Duff is entertaining as the goofy Slender, whilst Alice Osmanski turns Mr Ford into a ball of rage – and her simple disguise as Mr Brook is brilliantly funny. James Alexander McInnes has the audience in stitches as Dr Caius, faithfully bringing Shakespeare’s text to raucous life (it’s written as he should speak it). Jen Wiper and Lia Burge make a fantastic double act as Mistresses Ford and Page, and James Tobin’s portrayal of Sir Hugh Evans is full of mischief. Ben Eagle is a force of nature as the central figure of Falstaff, full of boisterous energy and even making the rest of the company laugh!
My verdict? A raucous production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays – another Merely Theatre triumph!
The Merry Wives of Windsor ran at Theatre N16 from 20-21 July 2017.