After the RSC’s angsty, imagery-riven Hamlet last night, it feels good to indulge in some a classic Shakesperean caper. Northern Broadsides have, in typically boisterous fashion, claimed The Merry Wives Of Windsor for Yorkshire, dispensing with the “of Windsor” epithet and replacing it with a healthy dose of rollicking Northern humour. This is bawdy, farcical and hugely enjoyable stuff: Carry On Shakespeare set in 1950s Skipton.
The Merry Wives finds the legendary Sir John Falstaff (played, nay, inhabited here by Northern Broadsides ever-present artistic director Barrie Rutter) wooing two rich, married women at once. Mistress Page (Nicola Sanderson) and Mistress Ford (Becky Hindley), upon discovering his deceit, decide to play trick after trick upon him, conspiring together to have him bundled into a river, beaten while dressed as an old woman, and humiliated in front of the entire town. At the same time, Messrs Slender (an openly camp Jos Vantyler), Fenton (an earnest Adam Barlow), and Caius (a flagrantly French Andy Cryer) squabble over the affection of the dainty Ann Page (Sarah Eve). Justice Shallow (Gerard McDermott), yet to make an appearance in Henry IV Part 2, leads a half-sozzled band of cuckolded husbands, red-nosed pub flies and cackling Geoffrey Boycotts from spectacle to hilarious spectacle.
The shift up North, to a time when Britain’s class structure still prevailed, really works, helping to flesh out characters that might otherwise seem a little two-dimensional. The two rich husbands, the unassuming Page (Roy North) and the cripplingly jealous Ford (Andrew Vincent), sport cricket jumpers and sports jackets, and always seem to be carrying golf clubs or tennis rackets. The merry wives themselves are comfortable, middle-aged, stay-at-home schemers in pressed white blouses and floor-length skirts. The various rogues and servants sport earthy waistcoats and twill flat-caps. A real sense of community is born. Everyone knows everyone else, and is probably playing some sort of trick on them. Even Cryer’s pugnacious Frenchman and John Gully’s unapologetically Welsh priest are in the club.
The only outsider is Rutter’s gruff, waddling Falstaff. Like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, he is entirely self-serving, blissfully unaware of the laughter behind his back. The first time he is fooled, trapped in a laundry basket and dumped in a river, it is funny. The second, forced to disguise himself as “the fat woman of Ilkley” and beaten with a 5-iron, it is hilarious. The third, it is heart-breaking. He takes his humiliations well, and the flame of his bombastic humour is never fully extinguished, but when he slumps against Herne’s Oak, mocked by the whole town, one can see a foreshadow of his cruel rejection at the hands of the newly crowned Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 2. Rutter’s Fat Knight is brilliant – a million times more entertaining and alive than Anthony Sher’s in Gregory Doran’s King and Country Cycle for the RSC – but he is also pathetic, an old man chasing shadows.
In addition to his Falstaff, Rutter directs with vision and verve. He is never too ambitious, nor too laconic, but gets it just right throughout. The mayhem is cranked up adeptly, then released three times over a swift two hours but there is no weary repetition. Instead, one is excited as to what the plotters will come up with next. Rutter’s production consistently finds the funny; the scenes in which his Falstaff cowardly hides from Vincent’s raging Ford are exquisite, as are those in which the tormented Ford seeks his advice in disguise.
Why isn’t The Merry Wives Of Windsor put on more often? Granted, good productions of any established play – as this undoubtedly is – provoke the same question, but I would still advocate a revival of this less-performed comedy over the often ubiquitous A Midsummer Night’s Dream any day. Shakespeare’s text does not set the world on fire – he is paradoxically at his most impenetrable when most colloquial – but his ability to craft an amusing scene is on full display. This is not a comedy for those who love highbrow, cerebral witticisms, but a feel-good farce full of crude jokes and delightfully contrived comic catharsis. This was my first experience of it; it certainly won’t be my last.