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January 03, 2007

Look Out, Falstaff's Behind You: Merry Wives - The Musical at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Merry Wives - The Musical
directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
2nd December 2006 - 10th February 2007

I am inclined to think that Christmas is the paradigm case of an institution which you either love or hate. I am firmly in the favourable camp and I have always found the appeal of a holiday at home irresistible. It is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which turns what might otherwise have been the dullest of times into the most exciting. And my Christmas is not about presents: I find choosing them a headache and am said to be terrible to buy for (I don't want anything). Nor is it about food and drink which we do fairly lavishly most of the time. It's about seeing people - and live entertainment: carol concerts, the local music hall production, Boxing Day football, New Year Racing. And the RSC's annual money-spinner.

This year it is a musical version of Merry Wives which overlaps the annual panto season blockbuster with the Complete Works festival. MMW is Shakespeare's only play written entirely in prose and the only one set in his own country and his own time (unless you count As You Like It). It is a comedy about marriage, sex, jealousy, class, money and nationality, with conspiracies and practical jokes. In other words, it's sitcom and though loosely based on Italian precedents, it's a made up plot with some claim to be the first English sitcom. Legend, since at least the early eighteenth century, has said that it was knocked up to meet Queen Elizabeth I's expressed desire to see a play about "Falstaff in love".

And in this production you actually get the Queen herself - or the nearest available thing in the form of Judi Dench who won an Oscar for playing her in Shakespeare in Love in 1998. She joins an extraordinary cast. On paper, as we football fans say, this is the strongest team the RSC has put out for some time: Simon Callow who has been in hundreds of things (and written textbooks on acting), Alastair McGowan of the eponymous Big Impression, two of my favourite actresses in the lively forms of Alexandra Gilbreath and Haydn Gwynne and the best Shakespeare director of recent years, Greg Doran. If Roman Abramovitch did theatre companies . . .

The play is set in a kind of eternal England. Many of the male characters were conceived with the early fifteenth century in mind, of course, and they are dressed in a whole hotch-potch of styles. The eponymous wives are straight out of Vogue 1955 while many of the characters are in traditional "Shakespearean" costume; Pistol, Nym and co. are 1970s punks, Bardolph sports a kilt as well as a red nose (which could lead to allegations of ethnic stereotyping) and Falstaff dresses idiosyncratically and arrives on a motor bike. The scenery is elaborate and Victorian in style with a detailed countryside in the distance (looking distinctly twentieth century) and real trees in the forest. All of which I like and would have said, "Yes, go for it" if asked.

But at the interval I was left reflecting on an Irish traveller's comment on the Chinese landscape: "It's interesting how boring it is". And wishing these excellent actors had been allowed to act the play straight instead of having to sing so much. The thing just never lifts off and the parts remain a good deal more than the whole. Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath are capable of being the merriest of wives and though Simon Callow as Falstaff and Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly are not at their very best (Callow was a late substitute for Desmond Barritt) they are still pretty good. In line with the stylistic theme of the blurring of time Falstaff and Mistress Quickly have been allowed to revive something of their relationship from the early fifteenth century - another good idea which I would have wholeheartedly approved. And Alistair McGowan is Cleesingly manic as Frank Ford. So, for a football fan it is like seeing the lads turn out at full strength, up for it, in a full stadium and then, mysteriously, nothing happens: 1-0 down at half time and very little to get excited about.

The problem is the music. There's too much of it and - given that Salieri, Verdi, Holst, Elgar and Vaughan-Williams inter alia have written music related in some form to the text - Paul Englishby's score, a Sondheim/Les Mis kind of thing, was never going to be my cup of sack, though Ranjit Bolt's lyrics are often witty and don't jar (much) with the Shakespearean spoken word. Only Scarlett Strallen as Anne Page and Martin Crewes as Fenton sing as if they really belong in the musical theatre. So another semi-flop of an RSC Christmas treat, then, to go with last year's Great Expectations and the efforts of several years, stretching back to the undoubted success of The Secret Garden and, before that, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But you should not write your match report at half time, lest the lads sparkle in the second half and score three brilliant goals. This production suddenly lifts off in the second half. It becomes firm of purpose; we leave Sondheim behind and the music complements the comedy. The mood shifts immediately with a tavern anthem based on Falstaff's peon to sack in Henry IV, 2. The women of Windsor do a wonderful hoe-down interspersed with a gavotte. The belly-laughs come thick and fast, not least when septuagenarian Dame Judi appears to do a triple cartwheel across the stage. Falstaff's third humiliation, the assignation in the forest, which often seems de trop and an anti-climax, has atmosphere and romance and we are pleased that Anne Page marries the handsome Fenton rather than either of the suitors her parents preferred. The middle-class audience, having seen a comedy set in a fantasy world of an eternal and timeless middle-class, leave contented.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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