Stage Door Review

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Friday, June 7, 2019

✭✭✭✭

by William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

June 1-October 26, 2019

Falstaff: “I am glad, though you have ta'en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanced”

The current Stratford Festival production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is the company’s best since Bernard Hopkins’s marvellous production in 1990 starring James Blendick. Geraint Wyn Davies gives a more richly humorous and detailed performance as Falstaff than he did when Stratford last presented the play in 2011. And director Antoni Cimolino has achieved the rare feat of giving us the sense that all the characters on stage belong to a single community where everyone knows everyone else. What stays with you more than any one performance is the feeling of having shared in the group experience of this delightful populace of eccentrics.

Those familiar with the play will know that it is one of the first examples in English drama of what we would now call a spin-off. The character of Falstaff had been so popular in Shakespeare’s history plays Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, that Queen Elizabeth I herself is said to have asked Shakespeare to write a play depicting “Falstaff in love”. In complying with this request, Shakespeare detached Falstaff from the time period of the Henry plays (1402-13) and placed him in Shakespeare’s own present day. Along with Falstaff, Shakespeare transported various characters along with him from Henry IV, Part 1 like Bardolph and Mistress Quickly and from Part 2, like Pistol, Nym and Justice Shallow. 

Merry Wives (1597) is the closest to a pure farce that Shakespeare ever wrote after The Comedy of Errors (1594). The story is very simple. Falstaff, believing he has been admired by two married women in Windsor, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, sends identical love letters to them both. The women discover the knight’s plan and frame their own revenge upon him. It happens that Mistress Ford is plagued with a husband prone to jealousy, so that pretending to have an assignation with Falstaff will help her take revenge upon him as well. Meanwhile, four men in Windsor are all in love with the Pages’ daughter Anne – Dr. Caius, the French doctor; Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson; Slender, put up to it by his uncle Shallow; and Fenton, a poor gentleman. Page favours Slender, Mistress Page favours Caius, but Anne herself loves Fenton.

Cimolino and designer Julie Fox have relocated the action to the 1950s following the lead of Bill Alexander’s production for the RSC in 1985 and the recent production of Verdi’s operatic version, Falstaff (1893) by Robert Carsen seen at the COC in 2014. This is a good period to choose because the play assumes that there is a wealthy middle class and that conservative mores still prevail.

In his “Director’s Notes” Antoni Cimolino wonders whether the Windsor of the play is really inspired by Shakespeare’s memories of growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon. In turn, we might wonder whether the “small town” where Cimolino and Fox have set the action is not really our own Stratford. The Tudor-style house front that forms the set would certainly not be out place here. And the character Slender does wear a varsity sweater with a large S on it, not a W. 

In any case, what Cimolino achieves in the play is the feeling of a small town community working together, a feeling he achieved in an Italian neighbourhood in Eduardo De Filippo’s Napoli milionaria! last year and that Chris Abraham created in his Stratford-set production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014. One way Cimolino brings this about is using the time during the scene changes to show us the lives of the various citizen’s in smaller roles going about their daily business. Sir Hugh Evans, the town school teacher, leads his students about and various minor characters meet and travel around the thrust stage. The Garter, presided over by Hostess Sarah Dodd, is portrayed as the town’s local pub and meeting place not just for speaking characters but for many of the non-speaking characters as well, so that we get a feel for the town both at work and at leisure. 

In particular, Cimolino does not have the children of the town make their first appearance in Act 5 as is usual. Rather, he starts the action off with them playing and shows them at play during many of the scene changes. In the children’s recreation before the play proper begins, he has one boy try to play jump rope with two girls. When he fails, the two girls tie him up with the rope. The action is repeated later in the play when Mistress Ford and Mistress Page tie Falstaff up in exactly the same way for trying to play a bit more than jump rope with them.

When Geraint Wyn Davies played Falstaff in 2011, it felt like a mélange of different influences that had not quite merged into a single character. Now these various influences have merged and make Wyn Davies one of the greatest Falstaffs seen at Stratford. He seems to take Prince Hal’s description of Falstaff as his guide – “that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts,...that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years”. 

Wyn Davies shows us a Falstaff who is daring in his plans yet cowardly when found out, comically able to deceive himself that he is attractive yet quick enough to acknowledge he is infirm, foolish enough to think his schemes will work yet wise enough to see when others are fools. Wyn Davies portrays Falstaff as the great compendium of opposites that makes him such a great character. He also is excellent in portraying Falstaff’s difficulty with his size. He can’t lift his leg high enough to get into the laundry basket to hide and when he finds he is on his back on the bed, he can’t generate enough leverage to get himself back up.

The second most important male character in the play is Ford. Graham Abbey carefully escalates Ford’s fits of rage. He is especially funny when, awkwardly disguised as “Mr. Brook”, he has to stifle his anger when in conference with Falstaff he discovers how his wife and Falstaff have fooled him.

As the “merry wives” of the title, Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page (as Mistress Page is called in this version) and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford are well matched. Both are equally sprightly and equally inventive. Cimolino borrows their meeting under hairdryers to compare Falstaff’s letters directly from Bill Alexander’s 1985 RSC version where it was one of the show’s central images. What Wilson and Walker do best are the scenes when they pretend to have a conversation between themselves as if they did not know a hidden Falstaff was listening. While using an over-emphatic speech to make sure Falstaff can overhear them, the two delight in making fun of each other as if to trip each other up. These scenes are done perfectly as amateur actors like the merry wives might do and their joy at the success of each revenge on Falstaff is infectious.

Beside these main role, the cast provides a host of memorable portraits of characters about the town. Michael Blake as Mr. Page is as calm and reasonable as Ford is excitable and unreasonable. Lucy Peacock is a delight as Miss Quickly (as she is called here), who finds pleasure in working for various patrons to contrary purposes. Sarah Dodd is equally as enjoyable as the cowboy-style Hostess (instead of Host) of the Garter. Dodd’s Hostess is every bit as masculine in gait and speech as Peacock’s Quickly is feminine, but both are key in manipulating the plot behind everyone else’s back. It is a fine idea of Cimolino’s to give the Garter a Hostess since it helps to demonstrate that though the men of the town may think they are in charge, it really is the women who are in control.

Michael Spencer-Davis generates much humour as the aged and voluble Justice Shallow, who is exasperated at the lack of passion in his nephew Slender, played with a wonderful sense of comedy by Jamie Mac. Ben Carlson has mastered the difficult Welsh accent needed for Sir Hugh Evans and is quite amusing as a man prone to pedantry. Mike Shara uses his few appearances as the beatnik-styled Fenton to convey the deep feelings he has for Anne Page. And young Nolan McKee is a treat as the bright, well-spoken boy Robin, who goes about Falstaff’s immoral errands with such innocence.

The one performance that does not fit in at all with this portrait of small town life is the Dr. Caius of Gordon S. Miller. Caius is supposed to be a French doctor but Miller’s accent comes from no known area of France or Quebec or Central Europe although it partakes of all of these places. Worse, his performance starts out over-the-top and stays, tediously, at that high pitch throughout the show making Ford, by contrast, seem restrained. 

Cimolino has specified Halloween as the time when Falstaff disguised as the supernatural Hearn the Hunter will meet with Mrs. Ford. Though it is not in the text, it does provide a good excuse for the entire cast to dress up in a wild array of disguises. Cimolino has had 1950s-style songs composed by Berthold Carrière to lyrics by Marion Adler that sound almost like any number of top 40 hits of the period without being any one of them. These songs are used for scene changes but also become the soundtrack for the dance party that ensues once all the plots are resolved at the end. 

Just as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford have made a fool of Falstaff, so have Fenton and Anne Page made fools of Anne’s parents and their poor choices for her husband. The warm mood at the conclusion is a celebration of human wit and human frailty and we are all glad that little Robin persuades Falstaff to join the party. There may be flaws like the overdone Dr. Caius or too many gags about stepping or falling in piles of poop. Yet, on the whole, this production shows a keen understanding of what is best in Shakespeare’s comedy and imaginatively brings the whole world of the play to vivid life.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford and Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff, © 2019 Chris Young; Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff, © 2019 David Hou; Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford and Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford, © 2019 David Hou. 

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca