Linking up with this summer's productions of the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare's Globe nears the end of its "Kings and Rogues" season with the third Falstaff play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Rather than a new show though, this is a revival, with most of the same cast, of Christopher Luscombe's 2008 production, prior to a tour (so for a change, Americans and other aliens reading this can actually see the show, as long as they're aliens from Santa Monica or New York.) Having loved the two history plays I must admit the fact that we wouldn't get the same cast for the comedy made me look forward to it less than I might have done, but fortunately the cast soon stopped me from thinking about that. In retrospect perhaps the rather dark, selfish Roger Allam version of Falstaff would have been a bad fit for this much sillier play. Instead we get Christopher Benjamin as a kind of endearing, mildly libidinous Santa Claus, on Janet Bird's very pretty set that includes an elaborate bit of decking going around the pit, complete with little bridges and love-seat.
I've only seen the play once before and never studied it so it took me a while to get to grips with the many characters we get introduced to in order to set the farcical events in order. There's Falstaff himself of course, sending identical love letters to two married women, forgetting that, as they'd say 400 years later on Friends, "women talk." In fact best friends Mistresses Page and Ford are soon hatching plots to get back at the fat knight for the way he tried to play them, and much of the play is a sequence of these tricks they play on him. Meanwhile the Pages' daughter Anne is being sought after by three suitors - the one her mother likes, the one her father likes, and her own choice. The latter is played by Gerard McCarthy, who used to play Rubbish Tranny in Hollyoaks, so that was a bit disturbing. (At least I assume he's now left Hollyoaks - he's grown a beard. Although admittedly that's no proof, he was, after all, a very rubbish tranny so I wouldn't have put it past him to go for the whole Kenny Everett beard-and-frock combo.)
Having got the basics out of the way though there's not much to fault with the production once the story gets going. As well as Benjamin there's a lot of fun performances, starting with the titular wives, Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as Page and Ford respectively, looking like they're having a great time and really coming across as good friends with a sense of mischief; their "acting" when fooling Falstaff is very funny. Sue Wallace's Mistress Quickly has a few scene-stealing moments and William Belchambers gives a rather camp Slender, who doesn't look altogether upset when he accidentally marries a man at the end. The programme notes stress how the play seems to be a precursor to modern sitcom, and it's no coincidence this is illustrated with a photo of John Cleese, since Andrew Havill as the suspicious Ford has more than a touch of the Basil Fawlty about him.
I can't finish without mentioning Nigel Hess' music, as despite using traditional Elizabethan instruments the score is very unusual not just for this theatre but for stage plays in general. Hess compares it to a film score but if it is a film it's a Carry On film, or even a cartoon, so broad is the underscoring of the action at times. Actually for the most part I quite liked it, it's a different way of maintaining energy and tends to work in the show's favour, although at times I found the music playing at the same time as someone was speaking meant the words were drowned out.
After nearly two full seasons visiting the Globe and getting nothing worse than slight drizzle, tonight the show went on through pouring rain for most of the duration, but it didn't seem to affect the actors in the slightest. Tonight's performance was actually being filmed, so it'll be interesting to see if this rain-soaked night actually ends up being the one immortalised on the DVD, or if they'll have shot a selection of performances and picked a less sodden night. Despite the weather though the play remained sunny fun.
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 2nd of October at Shakespeare's Globe.