The Show Must Go Online: The Merry Wives of Windsor

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The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Falstaff trilogy continues over at The Show Must Go Online HQ, as The Merry Wives of Windsor provides a bit of comic deviation after Henry IV, part one. It was also a great opportunity to celebrate Global Pride with the customary global cast; alumna Victoria Rae Sook was on hand to talk about her experiences, some useful resources were shared in the YouTube video description, and (in true TSMGO fashion) a party atmosphere was created with a dress code & refreshment ideas – style and substance, as ever.

This play is an underrated classic, as far as I’m concerned; I’ve seen three very different stage versions of it before, and enjoyed myself immensely each time. The first wasn’t a full production, but a typically hilarious offering from Merely Theatre at Theatre N16 (in its Balham days) – as you’d expect, a focus on the text and lots of fast-paced action. I couldn’t understand why the play wasn’t more widely performed, if it was that funny! A complete shift the next time I saw it: the 2018 TOWIE-inspired RSC production, transferred to the Barbican for the winter season. Finally, the Jazz Age production at the Globe last summer, marred only by having a terrible time as a groundling and deciding I could no longer watch the plays there that way – thankfully I could revisit the production when it was streamed on YouTube recently, so I could watch it without worrying about the view, my personal space, or being able to hear what was being said. Ideal.

Giving the introduction was Jenn Deon, artistic director of PerSIStence Theatre and former AD of the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival. “Madcap mockery ensues” – that just about sums up the whole play in three words! Interestingly, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one instance wherein the middle classes are given “top billing”; this could go some way to explaining the play’s bad reputation, as it sees Shakespeare deviating from the norm of nobility & heroes to people more familiar to him – all set in suburban England (and the only Shakespeare play which is completely set in England). This “play of the people” is 90% prose and finds us with a different Falstaff to the one we met in Henry IV, part one; he’s “more gull than guile” and “falls prey to the tricks of two women” (Mistresses Page & Ford) – it’s a “castigation pageant”. Despite the popular belief that Queen Elizabeth I commissioned a new Falstaff play due to her love of the character, there is no reliable evidence for this – and it’s still kind of unclear as to where it fits in the chronology of the characters it shares with the Henriad. Deon suggests that, as it seems to sit well in the late 16th century (i.e. the time of writing), it can be seen as a “reboot in an alternate universe” – a concept very familiar to film buffs nowadays. What is clear is that this “truly unique” play puts women truly front & centre; it catalysed the use of the “underestimated woman” trope that’s now rather common, Anne Page eventually gets to choose her own husband, and the women hold the purse-strings – they are “dynamic in claiming agency”.

Merry Wives cast

Short on cash, Falstaff is intent on wooing two wealthy (married) women of Windsor with a view to raise his financial game – though he doesn’t see fit to write two different love letters, instead deciding to send identical notes to both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. His servants – Pistol & Nym – refuse to deliver the letters and Falstaff promptly sacks them, not even considering they might try to scupper his plans by informing the pre-cuckolded husbands… Ford (unlike Page) is the jealous type, so insists on going in disguise as Master Brook to learn of Falstaff’s plans. Needless to say, the two women also talk and very quickly realise what’s going on; to punish Falstaff, try to incite a modicum of envy in Page, and to infuriate Ford, they set traps for the men in their lives. Meanwhile, three men are competing for the hand of Anne Page: Doctor Caius (her mother’s choice), Master Slender (her father’s choice), and Master Fenton (her own choice). Considerable confusion is caused by individual parties promoting different suitors and trying to win others over to their cause, not to mention misunderstandings between parson Hugh Evans and Caius. Lots of plot lines to untangle, so little time…

Smirke, Robert, 1753-1845; 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', Act V, Scene 5, Falstaff Disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Act V, Scene 5, Falstaff Disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page
Robert Smirke

First of all, it was great to be able to join in with some Pride celebrations; there may be a lot of black in my wardrobe, but I also have a bit of a penchant for stripes – so I could call on a Doctor Who t-shirt and choose between four pairs of rainbow-striped socks… A heavily peach-filled Equali-tea was a refreshing drink to accompany the show, to make sure I didn’t get too hot & bothered from laughing so much! It was a surprisingly apt play to be performing with this celebration in mind – both jokingly with Simple having to hide in the closet, and also when Caius ends up marrying a boy at the end (following the confusion over who Anne was going to partner up with). This can be played in different ways, but in this case Caius seems very happy with his lot – as is his former advocate, Mistress Page. Between every company member the entire rainbow was covered via costumes & homemade sets (particularly well done in the final ‘Herne the Hunter’ scene), making it a colourful watch in more ways than one!

To anyone unfamiliar with the play, the ridiculous ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque French speech is actually written that way – it’s designed by Shakespeare to be over the top and provide some crude wordplay (Act 3 scene 3 being a prime example). The role was incredibly well suited to David Ellis’ comic abilities, delivering each line with panache and collapsing me into giggles every time he appeared on screen – “by gar!”, indeed.

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And what about Falstaff? Superbly played by TSMGO alumnus Robert Lightfoot (who has previously wowed audiences not only with his beard, but his ability to jump between multiple ensemble characters in previous shows) who, despite being separated from his fellow cast members, still managed to be put through the ringer during the Merry Wives’ pranks. Some more incredible Zoom camera work was deployed, including basket interior backgrounds and a clip of a basket being dumped into water. Credit must also go to Alix Dunmore and Aruna Clinch as Mistresses Page and Ford, respectively, for showing their characters’ sense of fun so well – there was no doubt in my mind about whether the wives were enjoying themselves or not!

Last but not least, for the regular digital groundlings, Eugenia Low (Bardolph) included a cheeky little reference to something that quickly became TSMGO vocab, drinking a bottle of Poig beer… It’s a testament to the community that has been built up that every week the audience is having as much fun as the actors during the performance, bonding over Shakespeare knowledge, observations, and occasional typos! Long may it continue.

Next week: Henry IV, part two


The Merry Wives of Windsor was broadcast on 1 July 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.

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