Queen Elizabeth I may very well have fallen off her seat with laughter during “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a production specially commissioned by her Highness in order to see Sir John Falstaff in love. How remarkable that over 400 years later, audiences all over would be falling off their seats as well during the same production, delighted by fat bellies, cross-dressers and an absurdly funny French doctor.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” is set in the backdrop of the postwar 1940s, a rather austere setting for such a jovial play. Written towards the end of the queen’s reign, presumably around 1600, the social issues of “Wives” directly parallel those of postwar Britain, namely frustrations with the class system, sexual exploitation and colonization. Director Rachel Kavanagh does a wonderful job of making the setting work without sacrificing any of the play’s merriment.
The comedy revolves around Falstaff’s attempts to seduce the wives of England’s most wealthy citizens and their clever efforts to ridicule him and teach him a lesson. The subplot provides added amusement, as silly suitors are considered for Anne Page’s hand in marriage.
Alison Fiske gives Mistress Quickly, a friend of Anne Page’s, a high-pitched tone and an outspoken manner, perfect for her role as a go-between for Mistresses Page and Ford’s trickery. Tom Mannion is engaging in his role as the would-be cuckold Frank Ford, the jealous and mistrusting husband of Alice Ford.
The real fits of laughter came when Dr. Caius emerges on stage, a French doctor played by Greg Hicks (who also plays Coriolanus in the RSC’s “Coriolanus”). Hicks dances across the stage on the tips of his toes every time he speaks, stopping only to deliver his famous trademark phrase, “By God!” in an inflated French accent.
The bulk of the play resides, however, (both literally and figuratively) in Richard Cordery’s performance of Sir John Falstaff. He takes the stage with his double-chinned grin, ridiculous hyperboles and, at one point, a hilarious disguise as a large, hairy woman in a purple dress.
Aside from its comic absurdity, “Merry Wives” stands out among Shakespeare’s plays for its recognition of women as being as clever, if not more clever than men. For the first time, Falstaff is fooled by two middle class women instead of the haughty Prince Hal from “Henry IV” and “Henry V.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is an ensemble performance made both charming and hilarious by cast and director.