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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Welcome Back, Merry Wives! Come Again Soon

 
Lucy Peacock, Geraint Wyn Davies and Laura Condlln. Photo: D. Hou.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Frank Galati
Designed by Robert Perdziola
Featuring Laura Condlln, Lucy Peacock, Tom Rooney and Geraint Wyn Davies

The Story: When the broke Sir John Falstaff decides to woo Mistress Ford and Mistress Page at the same time to get at their husbands’ money, he has no idea the woes he is about to heap on his own head. Not only do the friends compare notes, they decide on a course of revenge that will both humiliate the knight and prove to the jealous Mr. Ford the honesty of his wife. But perhaps it is Falstaff who gets the last laugh when the Page’s are both duped in their marriage plans for their daughter Anne.

Why has it been sixteen years since The Merry Wives of Windsor has graced a Stratford stage? Last enacted here in 1995, it has been far, far too long between productions. It is a delightful, fun-filled play; a great vehicle for actors with comedic chops, especially for women for whom there are too few leads in Shakespeare’s canon. Perhaps it was the fear of having to live up to the success of the last production – the late, great William Hutt last portrayed the Merry Wives’ Falstaff – but half a generation has passed since the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has produced it, which is a shame for what is probably the most accessible Shakespeare play for modern audiences. Thank the deity of your choosing, then, that The Merry Wives have finally returned to Stratford. 

Lucy Peacock and Laura Condlln. Photo: D. Hou.

The wives of the title are portrayed by Lucy Peacock and Laura Condlln. “Played” is actually the better term, because there is no doubt that Ms. Peacock and Ms. Condlln are having such a hoot of a time in these roles that it is akin to watching a couple of BFFs on stage (I am pretty sure Ms. Peacock barely contained a giggling fit during one scene opening night). Ms. Condlln plays the chief schemer Mistress Page with honest indignation, and wonderful expression; Ms. Peacock’s Mistress Ford is the gleeful, giddy follower for most of the time but she shows a wistful envy for her friend’s happy marriage and a real frustration with the jealousy of Mr. Ford, which Ms. Peacock subtly turns to adoration with the play’s resolution.

Tom Rooney. Photo: D. Hou
Although the women knock it out of the park, Tom Rooney comes close to stealing the show as the jealous Mr. Ford. The thought of being made a cuckhold by his wife and Falstaff sends him into an impotent blood-boil – complete with Don-Knotts-like fuming and blustering – that gets better and better throughout the play. Not one to hold back at either extreme, his apology to his wife (when he is let in on the scheme) is as complete as his rage, and just as funny. A few well-placed visual jokes add to his hilarity, but one gets the sense Mr. Rooney does not really need them.



Geraint Wyn Davies. photo: D. Hou
Filling the fat-suit of Sir John Falstaff – with alacrity - is Geraint Wyn Davies. The plotting knight of the Henry IV plays is now down and out, and perhaps it his desperate need for money which forces him into the ridiculous situations that the merry wives design, but whatever the reason Mr. Wyn Davies wades – or waddles – fearlessly into them all. Falstaff’s narcissism and rotundness produces some of the best farcical moments, including an absolutely spectacular pratfall and recovery from actors Victor Dolhai and Robert King.


Director Frank Galati has produced a very even-keeled production, neither over-the-top nor too understated, and very well-paced; there was rarely a lull in the action or dialogue. The biggest fracture comes unfortunately at the hand of one of the most anticipated performances: as Mistress Quickly Corner Gas’s Janet Wright just did not have the liveliness of Ms. Peacock or Ms. Condlln, and her scenes – so textually rich with comic opportunities – were flat by comparison. Janet Wright may have missed her comic cues, but other actors made mincemeat of theirs – Nigel Bennett as the drawling French Dr. Caius does not miss a chance to mangle the English language, Christopher Prentice is a delightfully dense and expressive Master Slender, and James Blendick has the audience in stitches as Slender’s long-suffering, muttering Justice Shallow. Once able to catch their collective breath from laughing, the audience promptly had it taken away again in the last scene, a magical lantern-lit forest with a life-sized tree (modelled after one by the Avon River).

One of the most impressive things about this stylish, Biedermeier production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is that the audience begins to chuckle before much farcical action takes place, laughing just at the jokes contained in the text - which means the actors delivering them were nailing the lines, without any help from visual gags or gimmicks. This is the mark of an excellent company, a group of truly professional and well-trained actors and a director who believes in them, and it is an astounding, rare thing to witness. Catch The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Festival Theatre this season until October 14th– and hope it does not take another sixteen years to reappear.

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