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The Merry Wives of Windsor is at worst a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but the RSC’s latest production saw it at its best, with director Fiona Laird achieving her goal of combining the modern with the Elizabethan. What promised to be The Only Way Is Windsor turned into a full girls night in, Shakespearean style of course but packed to the brim with comedy.
The play follows Sir John Falstaff, previously seen in some of Shakespeare’s other works such as Henry IV, as he attempts to gain some fortune by seducing two wealthy wives in Windsor. However, in discovering Falstaff’s double-dealing from the identical love letters he sends them, the two women take charge to turn the tables on the knight in a set of hilarious dealings and tricks.
The acting of this play’s comedy elements was interesting. It drew on a lot of classic comedy, with those familiar gags of slapstick and wordplay being used time and time again. And while you expect this as an audience, which makes those comedy moments somewhat predictable, everyone still laughs because ultimately this is a plot of wit and so it’s wit that wins the show. Whether it’s from the classic use of exaggerated French and Welsh accents pitted against each other or that one character who is guaranteed to fall over and lose his glasses from the start, the play manages to reuse those old comedy classics without overusing them until they were tired.
One of the play’s highlights was its exceptional costumes, which succeed in being both spectacularly modern and fabulously Elizabethan. The ornate tight-fitting corsets with gold printed leggings, and the pink tartan suit paired with a white ruff and beehive hairdo, both created power and status for the women. They were as sharp and as witty as their clothes alone portrayed them to be. On top of this, the music accompanying the action (composed by Fiona Laird) was the perfect mix between a modern and classical 4-piece band with Electric guitar, keyboard, bass and percussion on the one hand and recorders, clarinets, cornets and violins on the other. Cleverly, the music reached that balance between old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, bold and safe. Much like the women themselves.
The portrayal of the women shocked me. When going to see Shakespeare plays, there is always a sense that the women, however strong, will never entirely be treated equally. And while I’m not sure if this is down to the director or Shakespeare’s original writing, this play makes the modern day feminist in the audience gasp with familiarity. These female characters could have been written yesterday because while they may be manipulative, cunning and deceptive, they are also strong, kind, and loyal throughout. The use of TV show references aided this in particular, with the opening imitating a TV introduction and theme tune referencing current reality TV shows, there was a constant sense of being shown that day in the life of an ordinary and genuine character behind the tango tanned facade.
Overall, I rated the Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s very rare nowadays that you can come away from a show with a genuinely light heart and no feeling that there was some dark, sinister meaning beneath the comedic outer shell. However, in this case, the broadcast ended, and a smile was still on my face. As always, The Dukes Theatre made the show all the more enjoyable: its the only venue in Lancaster where you can have tea and cake while watching Shakespeare, what more could you ask for in an evenings entertainment?
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