Review of the Northern Broadsides’ production of Merry Wives at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. March 2016
Northern Broadside’s Merry Wives, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston this week, is Shakespeare redone as a classic English farce, with entrances and exits timed to perfection, and all the characters that have become staples of the genre – the lecherous old man, the jealous husband, the dopey servant, thwarted lovers and the bawdy old woman.
In a fast-paced production the cast pull off the performance with great energy, communicating their enthusiasm to the audience throughout.
Shakespeare’s original title was The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the play is believed to have been written some time between 1597 and 1602 on the command of Elizabeth I, but director Barry Rutter has set his version in Yorkshire, with the cast in 1920s costumes.
Sir John Falstaff (played by Rutter with a booming self-regard), the knight from the Henry IV plays, is down on his luck and courts two married women in a plan to get money from them. Falstaff flatters himself with his desirability, the two wives – Mrs Ford and Mrs Page – are repulsed by the obese knight (“two yards round” the waist) and his obvious plan, and conspire to set him up to humiliate him.
Like the fool he is, Falstaff keeps returning for more – first he is forced to hide in a laundry basket and is dumped in the river, then he has to escape dressed as a woman and is beaten black and blue as he flees, and finally he is persuaded to come to the forest at midnight where he meets not Mrs Page alone, but the whole cast, who first scare and then ridicule him.
Falstaff quickly bounces back, so we suspect he hasn’t really learned his lesson – but in the meantime the lovers elope, and the husbands of Mrs Ford and Mrs Page come to appreciate what good wives they have.
The cast is strong throughout, but Andrew Vincent as Mr Ford is particularly good, his jealous rages giving some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley work wonderfully well together as the titular ‘Merry Wives’, and Helen Sheals as Mistress Quickly, Andrew Cryer as Dr Caius and Jos Vantyler as Slender all do great comic turns. The set design and the costumes are as light and as bright as the play itself.
Of course some of the Elizabethan jokes haven’t worn well, but the exuberance of the performances and the pace of the show overcome this, and the characters and the comic situations in which they find themselves are timeless. There’s even a song and dance at the end, sending the audience away with smiles on their faces.