Fiona Laird's irreverent 2018 production of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives Of Windsor is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a near-perfect production of a terrible, terrible play. Shakespeare, despite the general consensus, was not a supreme and faultless genius and Merry Wives is unreservedly amongst his worst works, between textual issues and the unbearable existence of Falstaff, the lack of anything human and meaningful, the excess of dick jokes. It is, bluntly, a lemon.
But in Laird's hands, the production is beautifully disrespectful to Shakespeare (for the most part), avoiding the blind awe and forced gravitas often ascribed to him and his works. The blatant "TOWIE" inspired marketing is a stroke of genius, perfectly setting the tone for the lavishness, the melodrama, the outrageousness, the modernity (and, in many ways, the triviality inherent to the play). A play with no stakes is made bearable by its instant zany humour, a montage introducing every single character in all their stock glory full of physical humour, scored by cute, twee, chintzy, pseudo-Victorian instrumentation which shifts suddenly to thumping modern electronica.
A strong ensemble nails the comedy and the fun. Karen Fishwick's Anne Page and Luke Newberry's Fenton are an adorable and hopeless couple who you're rooting for even as you're scornfully scoffing at; Tim Samuels' constant look of bemused and/or overwhelmed uncertainty made Shallow one of the funniest characters, along with both David Acton's Sir Hugh Evans and Jonathan Cullen's Dr Caius, a double-act for the ages. Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter was by turns hilarious and endearing, a combination not dissimilar from the loveable idiot Mistress Quickly, played to perfection by Ishia Bennison. And then Bardolph, Nym, and Robin (Charlotte Josephine, Josh Finan, and Nima Taleghani, respectively), small roles that they are, were each relatable, imbued with personality and, even more so, scores of laughs.
Surely the critical anticipation is on Falstaff, the bafflingly-beloved misogynistic oaf, and surely David Troughton is a natural Falstaff (especially following his turn as the absurd and bleakly comic Titus Andronicus in 2017). But the real stars of the show are the eponymous wives – merry indeed – Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford, laughable and loveable, a scheming due showcasing the very best in women-supporting-women, each triumphing (hand-in-hand) against husbands, conspirators and, most of all, the intolerable Falstaff.
I do have two key issues with this production that keep it just outside of arms' reach of perfection. The first is the questionable framing device opening the play, featuring the pre-recorded voice of (vomit) William Shakespeare receiving a letter (yup) from Queen Elizabeth (yup) requesting a new play about Falstaff be written in less than two weeks, to be performed for her personal pleasure. Aside from peddling a popular myth, this device also perpetuates problematic notions of Shakespeare's supposed genius, his status as a national (and nationalistic) figure, and establishes from the very beginning a reverence for Shakespeare that has no place in the rest of the production. The other issue, more widespread not just in the production, not just in the RSC's repertoire for the past few years, but in theatre (and especially comedy) on the whole, is the use of excessive effeminacy and camp for laughs, coding characters as secretly gay or at the very least laughably femme, for cheap and universal laughs. And some of the "gay jokes" work (the Caius/Nym resolution, for instance), but most of it is tired, boring, frustrating.
In terms of production, Lez Brotherston's design is perfect, a combination of the quaint and the modern, doing the absolute most with its scant components to create multiple spaces cleanly and entertainingly (such as Mistress Ford's poolside garden), integrated flawlessly with Tim Mitchell's lighting. Director Fiona Laird also provides the exquisite music for the production, while Sam Spencer-Lane's choreography made the most of the large cast, the clever design, and the mostly electronic soundtrack. Concluding with a farcical denouement, some bona fide spectacle theatre and, finally, a feel-good dance number, this is a production that overcomes its problematic opening and bouts of weakness, cementing itself as the most entertaining production to play on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's stage in recent memory.