While being one of Shakespeare’s less-performed plays, the Merry Wives of Windsor uses many of his classic theatrical elements including disguises, revenge plots, arranged marriages, and plenty of innuendo. With recognisable characters and plot points from other Shakespearean comedies, this rendition also aligns the script with equally recognisable comedy tropes from an Australian context to add extra dimension to the raunch and gossip.
The story starts with Sir John Falstaff (Cheryl Ward) reckons he can solve his money woes by wooing two wealthy wives who can support him. But Mistress Page (Suzann James) and Mistress Ford (Roslyn Hicks) immediately foil his plan by comparing their unsolicited letters of lust so they hatch their own plan to seek revenge for his impudence and embarrass him repeatedly. At the same time, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne (Jessie Lancaster) is being courted by three men, each with their own supporter: Mistress Page prefers French Doctor Caius (Rob Thompson), Ford (Rob Ferguson) has chosen Slender (Harry Winsome), and Anne has her eyes on Fenton (Olivia Xegas). The two stories collide with an orchestrated fairie attack in the woods where Falstaff learns his lesson and Anne is finally wed.
Rather than 17th century Windsor, director and designer Victor Kalka placed this performance squarely in 1980s suburban Australia complete with a Hills Hoist and corrugated iron roofing. The costume design by James Cao carried the era home with over-the-top aesthetics of hairspray and synthetic fabrics. Of particular appeal were the brown tracksuit sported by Slender, a neon number on Mistress Quickly (Priyanka Karunanithi), and an impressively back-blown blonde wig atop Mistress Page. By setting the merry wives in 80s Australia, Kalka drew connections between the colloquial, gossipy context of the original production in Shakespeare’s day under Queen Elizabeth I and a more recognisable mode for Australian audiences of a neighbourhood dramedy like Neighbours or Home and Away.
This additionally came through in Kalka’s direction of the performances which were largely hammy and outrageous with ample physical comedy and the occasional ad-libbed f-bomb. In particular, the characterisation of key characters seemed inspired by classic comedy icons like Mistress Page channelling Kath from Kath & Kim and Sir John Falstaff having something of the vulgar businessman about him like Muriel’s father Bill from Muriel’s Wedding. Or even in Mistress Page’s co-conspirator Mistress Ford whose leopard-print skirt suit could have been ripped directly off Eddy from Absolutely Fabulous. If the many overlapping storylines and specific Elizabethan references in the script were too much then these visual cues and comic characterisations worked well to centre attention.
It was the eponymous Windsor wives who stole the show in terms of performances for James and Hicks’s easy camaraderie and believable conniving. James had great comic timing while Hicks’s exaggerated seduction of Falstaff and her equally elaborate cover-up for her jealous husband Ford. Ciarán O’Riordan and Emma Throssel provided nice colour as Falstaff’s head-banging sidekicks and Thompson’s Frenchman showed not much has changed for France’s reputation since Shakespeare’s day; shrill and demanding, through and through. Ward additionally stood out for how easily she carried the gross villainy of Falstaff.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is an odd child amongst Shakespeare’s oeuvre, falling tonally somewhere in between the comedies and histories and, despite Kalka’s best efforts at modernisation, it’s a script that could use some concise cutting to allow the most compelling elements to come to the fore.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is running at New Theatre from April 22nd – May 21st
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