Shakespeare Essex-style

Rating: 4

The Merry Wives of Windsor

by Georgina Brown 

This is not the kind of Shakespeare comedy where you laugh decorously to let your neighbours know you understood the Elizabethan joke. If you’re the kind of theatre-goer who turns their nose up at adding new gags to a play, Fiona Laird’s RSC production of the Merry Wives of Windsor may have you calling down fire and brimstone. Usually, I have to admit, I’m a bit that way myself. But as long as you can pretend to yourself for two or three hours that Windsor is not in royal Berkshire but somewhere in estuarial Essex, your ribs will be tickled non-stop.

Laird has directed the play not unlike a 21st-century TV sitcom: Ronnie Hazlehurst-ish music accompanies scene changes, dialogue is as sharp-tongued as Pauline Quirke and Lesley Joseph at full pelt, there are even one or two cutaway gags featuring a couple of Polish-speaking menials. Lez Brotherston’s wonderful design has the cast dressed in clever syntheses of period and modern costume, and there’s a discreet pleasure in watching the cross-cast Bardolph gradually transform from Falstaff’s tomboy hanger-on in sweats to a spangly Essex girl as she finds her true identity. Mistresses Ford and Page hatch their plot to chasten the fat, amorous Falstaff at a spa day; jealous husband Ford disguises himself as a bung-wielding Russian oligarch. It could have been excruciating. But Laird and her excellent cast make it all pay off in ways that chime with the spirit of the play rather than stifling it. For every potentially annoying update, such as turning the laundry basket in which Falstaff hides into a rank dumpster, there are a whole handful of dividends, from the knight’s gross-out state afterwards to the incongruous delight of hearing a Shakespeare character repeatedly say, ‘wheelie-bin’.

David Troughton, normally unmistakable, is unrecognisable as Falstaff, with a comb-over and ludicrous codpiece. He gives a broader performance than his usual dry style of comic acting but is no less masterly: his post-dumpster speech is pitched and timed to perfection. The normally dignified Jonathan Cullen prats about to a delicious degree as the French doctor Caius, right from his opening addition, ‘Quelle catastrophe, ce Brexit.’ Turning the host of the Garterinn, possibly the blokiest character Shakespeare ever wrote, into a woman ought to be disastrous, yet Katy Brittain makes the hostess a vibrant Essex woman of a certain age. Sometimes the RSC goes too far in jazzing up plays, and the show plonks; this time they’ve gone much too far and it’s wonderful.

In repertoire until 22 September, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 01789-403493; screened live in various cinemas on 12 September; transfers 7 December to 5 January to Barbican, London EC2Y, 020-7638 8891;