Wadham College gardens on a hot summer’s evening; what could be lovelier. A picnic of crisps, salad, fruit and exquisite nutty biscuits; a bottle of Tesco’s Simply Muscadet (weird to think they only charged me £2.51 for it), and front row seats for this year’s Oxford Shakespeare Company production, those Merry Wives of Windsor. It was actually this play that got us interested in the OSC eight years ago. We knew nothing about the company and just bought tickets on spec; and were immediately hooked. It was one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen, and to this day Mrs Chrisparkle and I will hoot with laughter if we recall to mind Doctor Caius and his cuddly Fishy. You had to be there.
Merry Wives is one of those plays that’s hardly ever studied, because Shakespeare rattled it off in a couple weeks to please the Queen who wanted to see Falstaff in love. As a result it contains little of his usual beautiful language, intense concepts and character insights; instead it’s pure sitcom. Consequently it’s one of the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to mess around, change the text and do what you want with it, and no purist is going to give a damn; and that’s one of the OSC’s strengths – they are brilliant at reinventing comedies and redefining characters in new locations and times.
This Merry Wives takes place at the annual Windsor fete. This must be the apocryphal fete worse than death, with squabbling families, randy publicans, wayward yoof and shameless gossip. When I tell you it has musical interludes that include the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon and Space’s Female of the Species, you’ll realise that nothing is being taken too seriously here. Basically, Sir John Falstaff gets it in his head that he would fancy a sexual dalliance with both Mistresses Ford and Page, so gets his minions to deliver identical love letters to both – schoolboy error there, I’d say – and, appalled by the prospect of a little how’s your father with that revolting gutbucket, the ladies plan their counter-attack, which includes Mistress Ford shaking up her husband a bit as well. When all the plotting is uncovered, almost everyone in the story decides to go in for the kill on Falstaff, making him feel as much of an idiot as possible, with a final humiliating revenge. Whilst all this is happening the unsuitable suitors of Mistress Anne Page take their eye off the ball and she instead gets hitched to dashing gent Fenton; and it all ends happily ever after.
It’s always a delight to see the imagination and commitment of the OSC’s creative team – Gemma Fairlie’s direction and the incredibly talented cast, and the extraordinary amount of effort they put in to make each production a success. This one is no different. Justice Shallow here is a Punch and Judy man, and his cousin Slender is – you guessed it – a puppet, and David Alwyn’s performance as both characters is both funny and immensely skilful. However, the first few scenes are stolen by the appearance of “Panda” – surprisingly absent from Shakespeare’s Folio – a superb example of an OSC liberty-taking that works so well. If they weren’t enough roles for Mr Alwyn he also appears as the suave-and-he-knows-it Fenton, who wouldn’t look out of place in “Made in Chelsea”. More TV references to follow.
Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are a great double act and are portrayed here as quite unlikely pals, which adds to the fun. Sarah Goddard’s Mistress Page is a hearty green-wellie brigade member, with a headscarf that makes her look like the Queen off-duty in Balmoral and a booming stage whisper when she’s abetting Mistress Ford trick Falstaff. Katharine Bennett-Fox makes Mistress Ford a pretty posh and well-to-do young thing, who summons her staff with a bell (but so nicely and refinedly); and later becomes a seething mass of vengefulness, cloaked in Fondant Fancies. Aspects of her character reminded me strongly of Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder II. This being a typical OSC production, everyone doubles up with roles, so they also take the parts of Falstaff’s street ruffians Pistol and Nym, with graffiti on their trousers and a fine line in “innit” conversation. The contrast between the characters only serves to increase the humour.
Heather Johnson is a great Mistress Quickly, very much the Everyman (Everywoman?) character, a servant to many masters and a gossiper about them all. She has a wonderful connection with the audience, and occasionally put me in mind of Matt Lucas as one of many Little Britain characters. David McKechnie is a marvellously supercilious Ford, with no time for anything but himself until his wife reigns him in; a totally incongruous American cowboy Master Brook (Ford in disguise, hope you’re keeping up), and a delightfully meddling Parson Hugh Evans. Rob Witcomb is both the Archers-theme whistling landowner Page, reminiscent of the Fast Show’s Ralph, if you remember that; and a completely hilarious fey Doctor Caius, all fluttering hands and destroyer of language. In the performance we saw, there was one superb awry moment where Doctor Caius became detached from his wig after a pratfall; Mr McKechnie re-wigged him beautifully and Mr Alwyn corpsed for the rest of the scene. Rachel Waring made a bewitching Mistress Anne Page and she and Fenton are going to have beautiful babies together. As Falstaff’s messenger Robin, she reminded me of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy servant Bob in Blackadder II. Right, no more TV references.
The only actor who doesn’t double up – and rightly so – is Jack Taylor who gives a tremendously funny and physical performance as Falstaff; lecherous and disgusting but never over the top, he has a superb stage presence and by rights really ought to be a jolly butcher in a farm shop – he has that look. Convincing throughout, and bringing joy to the stage with every appearance, I have to highlight the brief scene where he is felled by Doctor Caius and Parson Evans in slow motion; it’s physical comic genius. A very full audience absolutely loved the production and gave it huge cheers at the end. The last performance is on 16th August – you should definitely catch it if you can. A worthy addition to the OSC’s oeuvre!