The King’s Shakespeare Company returns with one of the playwright’s lesser known comedies The Merry Wives of Windsor, packed with energy, ridiculous costumes and a whole lot of fake laughter. The plot revolves around two storylines: that of Sir John Falstaff’s attempts to seduce the two merry wives, and the question of Anne Page’s marriage and her numerous suitors. It’s not the simplest play to grasp—a reason for which the programme’s summary of the plot was much welcomed—but its appeal lies more in the slapstick comedy and misunderstandings the characters seem to get lost in than in the comprehension of the storyline itself. The stage space chosen is seemingly perfect for the Jacobean city comedy: a balcony runs around the room and promises the excitement of characters running up and down the stairs and interweaving themselves in the audience. Yet, it doesn’t quite pan out in this way. The balcony remains for the most part vacant when it could have been used to alleviate the stress of the plethora of different characters on the rather small allocated space downstairs. However, this issue lies more in the difficulty of balancing the two plots that intertwine in the Merry Wives, and remains a minor detail throughout. It becomes clear in fact that a bit of chaos is exactly what this production needs.
Photo credits: the King’s Shakespeare Company
At the heart of it shines Doug Eveleigh as Sir John Falstaff, the creepy, off the wall protagonist—the prospect of a main character in the Merry Wives is questionable but if someone steals the title, it’s definitely him. Sir John Falstaff sends the same love letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page: this opening incident is what jumpstarts the play as the two women set out to get their own back. Eveleigh is positively exceptional—never does he lose energy, and never do his facial expressions and over the top mannerisms fail to get a laugh from the audience. At times Eveleigh oddly resembles the 'Child Catcher' from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his performance almost transforms the play into a pantomime, an attribute emphasised by sporadic break outs into song while the actors move the set around.
Occasionally, it seems like many of the actors do not know where to stand—there’s a quick shuffle around as someone tries to get their line in, and a general sense of “who is who” throughout. Yet while the diversity of characters does indeed lend the play a sense of confusion, it also makes room for fleeting, periodic bursts of energy as each actor gets their fifteen seconds of fame. Elias Reichel, Conor Hilliard and Jack Sheppard make for a humorous—if slightly unsettling—trio as Justice Shallow, Sir Hugh Evans and Master Slender respectively. Faisal Shaker lends the offbeat, pompous oddball Doctor Caius an excellent French accent and extravagant hand mannerisms, bumbling about in a flamboyant green jacket. Amy Young and Imogen Gibb also stand out as the two merry wives, establishing an endearing complicity and working well with the lack of female roles. Undeniably a male dominated play, it is interesting to note that the lesser male roles – the third and least significant suitor Fenton, who incidentally gets the girl in the end, and Falstaff’s assistants Nim and Pistol – were all given to women: one might consider what the play would have looked like had the trio of Shallow, Sir Hugh and Slender been composed of actresses for instance.
Varied personalities mixing, absurd insults hurled around the room and crazed, animal-like sounds that appear almost spontaneous at times, the play nevertheless works because of the actors. Each have their unique performative cadence, forming an eccentric harmony of voices and tones, and giving each scene a completely different atmosphere. The Merry Wives of Windsor is thus almost a glimpse into the inner workings of a troupe, where the actors and their characters go on tangents and disappear together in their own personal jokes, a chemistry that is rare and that forgives the play for its lack of coordination and general mayhem.
King's Shakespeare Company played The Merry Wives of Windsor from the 8th to the 10th of November. You can find more out about their future productions here.
Edited by Charlee Kieser, Deputy Digital Editor