Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford – Until 12 Jan 2013
by Richard Lutz.
This is an almost perfect production and it would be a sad person indeed who could pick it apart.
Word on the mean streets of Shakepeare-land (meaning myth and rumour) is that back in about 1597 or so, Elizabeth I was so enamoured with the Falstaff figure in the history plays that she commanded a comic romp for the old boy to be produced at her court in a fortnight’s time.
Shakespeare must have rolled his eyes, uttered an oath, sucked in his breathe and went through about 3 dozen quills and a couple of Tudor IPads and banged out Merry Wives of Windsor. When the queen wants something, you deliver.
Anyway, that’s the story. Who knows the real root of this play.
The author’s older Falstaff is a madcap lech and permanent drunk wallowing in self delusion. He convinces himself into thinking every housewife in this provincial town is dying to jump into the sack and put her arms around his grubby girth.
His saving grace is his articulate wit. He is funny, about himself, drinking, women, his pals. Shakespeare must have had a ball writing this stuff.
Anyway, in this precursor to many a tv sitcom, Falstaff writes twin love letters to a pair of yummy mummies whose husbands are either down the pub or at the rugby club. They are both shocked and twinked by the fat knight’s grubby billets a deux and decide to outsmart him.
And that’s about it really. No villains, no angst, no mythical lovers in a mythical wood. All very suburban with Mrs Ford living in one of those Warwickshire barn conversions and Falstaff’s local resembling an Olde Worlde carvery.
Director Phillip Breen has slapped his production deep into the heart of smug, proper modern suburbia- the suburbia of Solihull in Birmingham, Scarsdale in New York, Surrey in the Home Counties… of Stratford and South Warwickshire in fact.
Desmond Barrit was Falstaff in this history plays for the RSC. And he continues as the delightful obese slob here in great form. The cheeky merry housewives of Windsor, Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, played respectively by Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra le Tuzel, gloriously gab away as they spin Falstaff in plot after plot landing him either in a basket of dirty laundry, dressed as a gyspy-ish veiled witch or with horns on his head in a midnight wood.
Hats off also to Anita Dobson, she of Eastenders, as Mistress Quickly, all a bundle of nerves and knowing asides as she plays the never ending scurrying go-between.
The women are all sharp as tacks, alert and funny; the men all panicky, twitchy, tiny minded. Shakespeare always could write good female roles.
Director Breen gets the self satisfied British suburban mindset bang on, the set is perfect (down to the Virgina Creeper sliding up the mock Tudor mansions) and, as for the costumes- well pure middle class rugby club. As it should be.
Tickets phone: 0844 800 1110