Review: "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford. Photography by Chris Young.

Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford. Photography by Chris Young.

  • Dave Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic

Stratford, ON - A rollicking new version of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor swept through the Festival theatre Saturday night as patrons were treated to an evening of bellicose laughter.  Many academics agree that this is not Shakespeare’s best work – perhaps rushed writing.  But on this night a colleague correctly reminded me that, still, it is Shakespeare.

No vaulted soliloquies or pages of precious poetry here – there is more prose in this play than in any of Shakespeare’s battery.  This is a play, not so much for the ear but more so for the eye.  Director Antoni Cimolino has embraced this – grabbed it by the lapels and delivered visual comedy to be enjoyed right between the eyes.  Setting the play in the 1950’s gives ample opportunity for bold colour (solid lime green purse) and big costumes (various versions of poodle dresses.)  Elvis costumes and checkered suits abound.  All this feeds into the evening of visual and physical comedy that thoroughly entertains.

Not sure who will be more upset:  the me too movement over Falstaff’s despicable advances or the anti-bullying faction monitoring the rigours of his punishment.  Some might say he is “a man more sinned against than sinning.”  Sir John Falstaff, outrageously delivered by Geraint Wyn Davies, feels broke, but emboldened.  He delivers identical letters of romantic advance to two Windsor ladies with rich husbands.  Once they compare notes, the revenge plot begins.  They will draw Falstaff in and then mock him mercilessly not once, but three times.  The subplot is the contest for the hand of young Anne by four bumbling suitors.  Again, if the plot sounds thin, it is filled out with colourful characters, rich sight gags and astounding physical comedy.

The set, designed by Julie Fox, begins with a cartoonish, gnome-like house – you expect the seven dwarfs to march out at any time.  Cottony clouds, picket fences and fake grass round out the feeling that this is all whimsical, setting up the jocularity to begin.  Interior sets usually begin with beds – fittingly as the majority of jokes are carnal in nature.  The bed of the rotund Falstaff is small and drooping (you get it,) but Mrs. Ford’s bed (his objective) is large and sumptuous. 

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Falstaff with vigour displaying empty confidence.  A wry and conflicted smile is pasted on his face even through the worst of his turmoil.  Greasy fingers pawing at his rolling flesh make us squirm.  He huffs and puffs with a reddened visage and commits physical gags that are less choreographed than spontaneous.  A highlight is one moment on the bed where he turtles upside down and unsuccessfully rocks back and forth with arms and legs spasming upwards.  His character seems genuinely penitent as he is fully exposed at the end – Falstaff somehow always seems to survive.

Shakespeare borrows many of these characters from his Henry the Fourth histories including the scheming Miss Quickly played by Lucy Peacock.  Her comic machinations rival Falstaff’s and Ms. Peacock energizes the play even further with scheming eyes and manipulative movements.  Bardolf, played brilliantly by David Collins, is another borrowed character, one of many who act as Falstaff’s entourage.  Bardolf, equally ruddy of face, complements his drunken boss as he staggers through misguided plots.

Two more colourful creations of Shakespeare are the rivals Sir Hugh Evans (Ben Carlson) and Dr. Caius (Gordon S. Miller.)  As outsiders, they are ferociously mocked as they butcher the English language to delicious effect.  Hilarity ensues as they embarrassingly fail in their duel – Caius in his ridiculous fencing gear with a cod piece that is, well, too big for anyone and Evans waving about with his sword in one hand and a bible in the other.  Slender (Jamie Mac), a third rival for Anne, is skillfully played as a simpleton who speaks better English than his competition but is equally unable to communicate real affection.

The merry wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page are brightly played by Sophia Walker and Brigit Wilson.  They preen and mock and giggle throughout as their thirst for revenge seems never slaked.  Their two husbands, Ford (Graham Abbey) and Page (Michael Blake) contrast in their reactions to the wives’ plots.  Mr. Abbey displays genuine jealousy as he spins out of control in his search for conspiracy.  Much comic movement is created and directed by Valerie Moore – a highlight is Ford’s glee as he jumps triumphantly (he thinks) onto the laundry buck and dances about.  In his dismay, he flings soiled laundry high into the air like Jay Gatsby tearing through his shirt drawer.

This physical humour is a staple through the entire production.  Most hilarious are the alternate moments where servants are expected to carry the fat hidden body of Falstaff in the laundry buck.  This group of minor actors create a brilliant ensemble all their own as they riotously struggle to cart their fleshy contraband from the house.  Doubling down on this scene is the next time they anticipate the same struggle with tears and trembling.  Joy (and laughter) prevail as they discover they are now lifting an empty carton.

Shakespeare includes many children in the celebrations at the end.  Mr. Cimilino’s creative decision to incorporate the children throughout richly adds to the production.  The children dance and play between scenes creating further colour and festivity to the story.  They act almost like a chorus, but frothy and fun unlike the dour Greek chorus.  The use of the young actor Nolan McKee to play the servant Robin punctuates this decision.

Cow patties and all, this irreverent production is a comic jewel.  As Mistress Page declares at the end:  “let us every one go home, and laugh this sport o’er by a country fire.”  We are convinced the audience did just that.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare – Stratford Festival, Ontario.

Cast featuring:  Geraint Wyn Davies, David Collins, Brigit Wilson, Sophia Walker, Ben Carlson, Jamie Mac, Gordon S. Miller, Shruti Kothari, Mike Shara.

Production Staff:  Director:  Antoni Cimolino

Producer:  David Auster

Designer:  Julie Fox

Composer:  Berthold Carriere

Movement director:  Valerie Moore

Runs at Stratford Festival through to October 26, 2019.

Tickets online:  stratfordfestival.ca