Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Have we ever seen this?” I asked the Oracle as we decided what we watch on a cold, frosty, lock-downed Saturday evening. “No” replied my wife. We pooled our collective knowledge of the play – “Falstaff is in it”. So we took ourselves to The Globe in 2010 to watch the production directed by Christopher Luscombe. The following day I read about the play and this production – my complete set of Globe DVDs has an information book too.

They had put extra bits of staging in, which seemed a little bit complicated, but they used it well. It was fun watching the groundlings when they realised the action was behind them. The costumes were gorgeous, I decided I want Falstaff’s dressing gown (below, with Frank Ford pretending to be Master Brook), and the music was wonderful. Sharon Lindo, one of the musicians, plays violin/tenor and bass recorders/alto shawm/alto curtal. I know a shawm is the forerunner of an oboe, but a curtal? “The curtal is a Renaissance woodwind instrument, with a double reed and a folded (doubled into a ‘U’) conical bore to produce a more compact instrument than the larger shawms).” So now you know! And Sharon has her own website – http://www.sharonlindo.co.uk/ – she has done 14 productions at the Globe. We always concentrate on the actors, and forget everyone else who makes a performance.

So now I will tell you about the actors. Christopher Benjamin plays Sir John Falstaff. This is a younger Falstaff than in the Henrys – not as large or as old, and able to have a better time. He is not trying to succeed with Mistress Quickly or Doll Tearsheet, he is writing letters to nice married ladies, Meg Page and Alice Ford, in the hope (expectation) they will enjoy his company (and he theirs’). Meg is played by Serena Evans and Alice by Sarah Woodward. Falstaff may be hopeful, but the ladies are not going to betray their husbands, rather they will teach Falstaff a lesson. George Page (Michael Garner) and Frank Ford (Andrew Havill) eventually learn to trust their wives. Falstaff finds himself in a basket of dirty washing dumped in a ditch.

Rob Maslen has written a learned article in the Globe booklet, and discusses the view of England that this play gives us. He takes the party in Henry IV part 2 as his starting point – an alternative England, “a land engendered by the sheer force of the comic knight’s imagination.” A happy genial society – which contrasts with the one where Hal denies knowing Falstaff, Bardolph ends up hung from a tree., and the country descends into War. Legend has it that Elizabeth I “compensated for Henry’s bad sportsmanship by insisting that Falstaff be granted an imaginative kingdom of his own.” Even when Falstaff is being taunted in this play we keep being assured that no-one gets hurt. The scene at the end, where Falstaff is crowned with the antlers of a stag, then surrounded by characters dressed as fairies, is all in good humour. Maslen comments that the stag, the king of the woods, is also the contents of a venison pasty.

There is also the story of who Anne Page, daughter of George and Meg, will marry (Anne is played by Ceri-Lyn Cissone). Will it be Abraham Slender (played by William Belchambers), her father’s choice, Dr Caius (Philip Bird), her mother’s, or Fenton (Gerard McCarthy), her own? Some lovely comedy with Dr Caius, who’s French, and with Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson (Gareth Armstrong) – there must be a PhD in Shakespeare’s use of the foreigner to make us laugh.

Maslen ends his essay “In the Merry Wives merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat. It’s not the land where the Elizabethan’s lived; but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.” Sentiments which fit this Covid time in this Elizabethan Age.

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