Oxford Shakespeare Company - The Merry Wives of Windsor
30th June to 16th August 2013.
Review from Newbury Theatre.
Shakespeare is rumoured to have knocked up The Merry Wives of Windsor quickly, to please Queen Elizabeth who wanted more about Falstaff. It’s not performed as often as his most popular plays, but the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s version of it is a real belter – the nearest Shakespeare came to farce, and the sort of thing that the Carry On team might have come up with after watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The plot is quite complicated (and I recommend you buy the programme, which has a three-page synopsis of it), but the main gist of it is Falstaff getting his come-uppance. The production has 17 characters, played by 8 actors (although one of the characters is a Punch and Judy puppet – yes, weird is a suitable word to describe it).
The setting is an English village garden fête with a bar, cake stall, chutney stall, Punch and Judy, you get the idea. And it’s set in the beautiful grounds of Wadham College, on a lawn backed by trees.
Falstaff is played to perfection by Jack Taylor, swaggering, boastful and… large (we get to see more of him than we might want as the play progresses). His gang consists of Pistol and Nym (Katherine Bennett-Fox and Sarah Goddard with gangsta accents, Pistol’s too strong to be understood at times) and Robin (Rachel Waring). These three double up as the ladies of Windsor: Mistresses Ford and Page and Mistress Page’s daughter Anne. A lot of the intrigue is worked by Mistresses Ford and Page, with strong performances from the two of them.
The outsiders are the Welsh Parson (David McKechnie and, occasionally, Heather Johnson – I didn’t say this was going to be easy) and the French physician (Rob Witcomb) – think Python/Grail “I fart in your general direction”. In fact the whole production owes a lot to Monty Python and Basil Fawlty at his most manic. David McKechnie also takes on Master Ford and Master Brook (as an American cowboy with a Mexican moustache); the scene with Brook and Falstaff is delightful.
Heather Johnson is a feisty Mistress Quickly and David Alwyn’s combination of face, voice and body language make an impressive trio of Shallow, Slender (the puppet) and posh Fenton (there’s a reference to last year’s viral You-Tube clip of the dog chasing the deer that got a big laugh).
Add to this: mobile phone conversations, a variety of songs and a slow-mo fight accompanied by the Chariots of Fire theme on guitar, violin and kazoo, and it’s clear that Gemma Fairlie’s production is something special.
If it sounds crazy and chaotic, it is. But it’s a delight; great fun, and a wonderful way to spend a summer evening.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Carry on up The Thames
Oxford Shakespeare Company The Merry Wives of Windsor, at Wadham College, Oxford, until August 16
What better way to enjoy these rare warm summer evenings than to watch The Oxford Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in the lovely gardens of Wadham College?
Gemma Fairlie, who directed last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is reunited with the musical team of James D Reid and Nick Lloyd Webber for a visual and aural feast of entertainment. This is one of Shakespeare's funniest plays, full of Carry On-style puns.
Fairlie has located the play in a typical village fete where the Ford family sell fancy cakes and the Pages vend their pickles. It is in this bucolic environment that Sir John Falstaff (a wonderful, wobble-bellied Jack Taylor) finds himself driven to woo Mistresses Ford and Page in search of precious funds.
Windsor is full of characterful locals and comedy foreigners. Fairlie has cast brilliantly, as each of the cast of eight brings a delightful realisation of their roles. As the merry wives, Sarah Goddard's Meg Page is a Barbour-wearing horsey woman, snorting with a jolly-hockey sticks vitality while Katharine Bennett-Fox's Alice Ford is a willowy, Miranda Richardson-voiced Sloane. It is towards Mistress Ford that Falstaff is initially drawn and it is not unreasonable for her dopey husband Frank (David McKechnie, doubling hilariously as the pompous Welsh parson, Hugh Evans) to suspect that she has her lovers.
There is a delightful sub-plot about who marries the Pages' daughter Anne (Rachel Waring). David Alwyn plays her preferred option, the dashing Fenton, but doubles inventively to portray the fete's Punch and Judy man, Shallow. A northern comedian with a leering, open-mouthed expression, Shallow is never without his long-haired, hippyish puppet, Slender, another suitor for Anne's hand.
There's a lovely performance by Heather Johnson as a TOWIE-influenced Mistress Quickly, younger than normally portrayed, enticingly attired in fake leopard skin clothes and items of bling. Her urban naffness is matched by the portrayal of Falstaff's gang members Nym and Pistol as hoodies - so nice they could be hugged by our Prime Minister. The songs are pastiches of pop songs and, like the whole show, terrific fun.
Review from the Daily Telegraph.
In his superb book The Middle Class: A History, Lawrence James notes in passing, as he flits through the Tudor period, that ““Merry” was a word often on the lips of the hungry and the discontented; it summoned up a blissful state, either in the past or in the future, in which ale and food were plentiful and everyone was free to enjoy themselves without the constraints of labour or laws.”
In The Merry Wives of Windsor (c1597), Sir John Falstaff, relocated from Eastcheap, imagines he has arrived at such a utopia. All he must do is woo two wives – Mistress Ford and Mistress Page – at once. “I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me,” he brags. But of course his merry prey ensure the joke’s on him. Out of his comfort zone, he’s easily cozened.
Jack Taylor, cast as Sir John in Gemma Fairlie’s outdoor revival for the Oxford Shakespeare Company in its delightful annual setting of Oxford’s Wadham College, has the requisite girth to convince as the “epicurean rascal” but hasn’t yet got the full measure of his larger-than-life personality; he’s a little too clean-cut. His task in persuading us that we’re in the roistering company of an old friend isn’t made easier by the fact that he’s having to double-up as the Host of the Garter Inn in a show which takes actorly multi-tasking to such lengths that those without a firm grasp of the play or indeed English might find themselves beset by befuddlement.
It’s a neat conceit, though, to present the action as though we’re at an English country fete – strung with bunting and complete with a Punch and Judy booth and tents purveying “Page’s pickles” and “Ford’s Fancies”. Sarah Goddard convinces as a welly-, headscarf- and Barbour-sporting Mistress Page, Katharine Bennett-Fox as the more sophisticated Mistress Ford. I was less persuaded that the role of Slender should be taken by a ventriloquist’s dummy or that a puppet called Peter Panda should serve as a messenger; but when you’ve got 20-odd roles and only eight actors then needs must. The cast work their socks off to stir the laughs – with hoody-wearing hoodlums Nym and Pistol managing to make their backchat sound like the latest street lingo and re-styled familiar pop songs, sourced by James D Reid and Nicholas Lloyd Webber, making up in gusto what they lack in originality. Not a profound evening but certainly a pleasurable one.
There's are reviews in The Stage ("classic alfresco Shakespeare - with some off-the-wall quirks") and the Oxford Times ("this is a very funny production... the most enjoyable version I’ve ever attended... it’s simply a perfect evening out for all ages" - 5 stars).