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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Merry Wives Of Windsor
Barbican Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

I 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.

Director Fiona Laird has created a string of scenes and moments, but they don't hang together as a coherent whole.

We can 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 live.

Mr and 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.

Meanwhile, in 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.

Shakespeare's comedy 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.

There 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.

But the 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 director.

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.

A 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.

In what 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.

But 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.

And so 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.

His 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 on.)

And 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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Merry Wives Of Windsor - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2018

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