The Theatreguide.London Review
Merry Wives Of Windsor
Barbican Theatre Winter 2018-2019
recently had occasion to note how very much it helped a farce to have
everyone acting in the same style and convincingly inhabiting the same
reality. There are things in this new RSC Merry Wives to amuse and
entertain, but the overpowering effect is of an object lesson in what is
lost when those stylistic connections aren't there.
Fiona Laird has created a string of scenes and moments, but they don't
hang together as a coherent whole.
start with the setting. Having chosen modern dress, director Laird can't
seem to decide whether her Windsor is a real place, a TV sitcom town or a
day-glo Christmas Panto stage set, or in which of those worlds her actors
Mrs Ford are a semi-parody downmarket Essex couple, while their neighbours
the Pages are older and more conservative. You would expect Mrs Page to
grumble about how the Fords lower the tone and property values of the
neighbourhood rather than being best pals with Mrs F.
the subplot young Fenton evidently believes himself to be in a Panto,
beaming at the audience at every entry as if expecting to be greeted like
Buttons, and elsewhere there's actually a bit of audience singalong.
has several subplots, but at its core are the titular women playing a
string of humiliating practical jokes on the local Dirty Old Man as
punishment for his bothering them with his advances.
are actually three episodes of humiliating Falstaff, and at least two are
badly bungled. The most successful is the set-up of the first, as the two
wives have to play a scene for the skulking Falstaff to overhear, and
Rebecca Lacey (Page) and Beth Cordingly (Ford) act the scene in exactly
the inept way the characters would, giving us the double joke, at
Falstaff's expense and at theirs.
climax of that sequence, like the second a comic chase in which Falstaff
tries to get away, and the third episode, a public unmasking and
humiliation of the randy old knight, are all badly mishandled by the
Slapstick and physical comedy absolutely require precise timing and choreography – the jokes lie entirely in how perfectly people either bump into each other or miss each other. But Laird and 'physical comedy director' Toby Park just seem to have people rushing around randomly, without shape, rhythm or any comic effect beyond confusion.
similar half-heartedness runs through the production. Mr Ford is paranoid
about his wife's imagined infidelities and driven to extremes of jealousy.
He could be played as sad, ridiculous or perfectly reasonable, but a
director and actor really have to choose one and run with it, not
vacillate among the three as Vince Leigh does.
appear to be token gestures toward setting up running gags, Fenton is
(with no support in the text) made clumsy, tripping and falling down at
least once in every scene, while foolish Slender gets repeatedly slapped
in the head by his annoyed uncle.
pratfalls have to have an acrobatic element to them or they're just
somebody falling down, and the smacking should have an almost ritual
quality to it or else it's just a random bit of pointless nastiness.
we come to Falstaff. Granted, the character as written here is a somewhat
watered-down version of the monster of appetite in the Henry IV plays. But
David Troughton can't seem to find much joy of life in the guy at all.
Falstaff seems to be going through the motions of debauchery more out of
habit than desire. (There's a potentially interesting characterisation
there, but like too much else in this production, it's not followed up
Troughton looks oddly uncomfortable in his fat suit, never letting us
believe that the girth is his and not the costumer's.
Beth Cordingly gives some hints that she knows Mrs Ford is a bit of a bimbo and would like to be allowed to play her more broadly, and you sense Vince Leigh wanting to enjoy Ford's mad jealousy more wildly. The characters in the various subplots are all played by very talented actors trying very hard to be funny and not succeeding.
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