April 20, 2016
Here’s a production to rescue The Merry Wives of Windsor from the remainder pile of Shakespearean history. If you know the plot at all, chances are you picked it up from Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff.
In short, Sir John Falstaff tries to seduce two women by sending them identical love letters. Both women are happily married to wealthy men. They’re also best friends. So, already, there’s a fair bit of disbelief to suspend.
One of the women has a daughter with three suitors. One suitor is preferred by the father, one by the mother, and the third by the girl herself.
It’s normally at this point in the play that everyone starts thinking “Oh, god, not again!” and nods off.
It’s a tribute to director Rob Conkie, his cast and design team that this production of Merry Wives should have audiences sitting bolt upright with eyes wide, fearful of missing some stage business.
The stage certainly is busy. The cast of 10 (all doubling or tripling roles, apart from Falstaff himself) treat the space as if they were on a revolve. Entrances practically tread on the heels of exits in a mad, exhilarating swirl.
The costume and character changes are mind-boggling and a constant source of delight. Alex Pinder’s cameo as Will Page, a schoolboy in short pants, is quite perfect: simultaneously realistic and ridiculous. Jing-Xuan Chan swaps from girlie summer dress to flannie, singlet and shorts in a quick lap of the arras. When not playing Mistress Quickly, Caroline Lee pops up in a 60s party-girl outfit acting like an enforcer for the Kray twins.
At one moment, Carole Patullo is a hunched old man in black robes, the next she’s playing a perky wife in a pink frock. “Somebody call my wife,” says Frank Ford (James Wardlaw) late in the play. Patullo, as Justice Shallow, excuses herself with mumbled “I better fetch her” so that she can re-enter as Alice Ford. It’s a delicious moment of self consciousness.
The gravitational centre of the production, of course, is Tom Considine’s Falstaff. Looking more like Keith Michell than ever, Considine is a barrelling and bright-eyed force of nature. He plays the deluded knight as a rutting stag with a baggie of blue pills in his shirt pocket. He’s gruff, explosive and thrilling to watch. His acting is knife-edged. Utterly alive. And so is the production.