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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Stratford Festival's 'The Merry Wives Of Windsor' Leaves No Shtick Unturned

By Paula Citron on August 8, 2019

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Stratford Festival, 2019
Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Photo: David Hou)

Stratford Festival 2019/The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino, Festival Theatre, June 6 to Oct. 26. Tickets available stratfordfestival.ca.

Good things about director Antoni Cimolino’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Stratford Festival? There are some genuine points of laughter and an A-team of actors. Bad things? The women are ear-splittingly shrill, and Cimolino has crammed in as much cheesy comedy as possible. Happily for the director, the audience as a whole seems to be having a really fun time, but be warned, you have to appreciate farce to love this production. Cimolino leaves no shtick unturned.

Despite actual proof, it is a widely accepted convention that Queen Elizabeth I liked the character of Sir John Falstaff so much in the two parts of Henry IV, that she commanded Shakespeare to write one more play showing the reprobate knight in love. Hence, The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only play the bard set in his own time period.

There are only two aristocrats in the play, Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), and Fenton (Mike Shara), the love interest of Anne Page (Shruti Kothari). The chief focus is on the merchant middle class and their mores, namely Meg and George Page (Brigit Wilson and Michael Blake) and Alice and Francis “Frank” Ford (Sophia Walker and Graham Abbey). Other Windsorites include Justice Shallow (Michael Spencer-Davis) and his young cousin Abraham Slender (Jamie Mac), the French Dr. Caius (Gordon S. Miller), the Welsh parson-cum-schoolmaster Sir Hugh Evans (Ben Carlson), the Host of the Garter Inn (transformed into a woman played by Sarah Dodd), and various servants and followers including Falstaff’s retinue of Bardolph (David Collins), Nym (Farhang Ghajar) and Pistol (Randy Hughson). In other words, Shakespeare is writing about real people, or as real as he can get, so there is an earthy quality to the play now that any courtly tradition has been thrown out.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Stratford Festival, 2019
Geraint Wyn Davies (left) as Falstaff and Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Photo: Chris Young)

The merry wives in question are Meg Page and Alice Ford, aided and abetted by Mistress Quickly (Lucy Peacock), the latter being Dr. Caius’ housekeeper. Both wives are married to wealthy merchants, which is what spurs the impoverished Falstaff to write them love letters. He plans that these wives will be his meal ticket. As a point of trivia, the Pages are the only happily married couple in all of Shakespeare’s canon, which tells you something about the bard’s relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway. Poor Alice Ford is saddled with a jealous husband, and when Nym and Pistol break with Falstaff, and inform the husbands of the knight’s nefarious plans, Page trusts his wife, while Ford plots his own revenge. Thus, the burden of the play has the merry wives punishing Falstaff for assuming their infidelity, and by extension, Ford, for his unfounded jealousy. The subplot revolves around who should marry the Pages’ winsome daughter Anne. Meg Page favours Dr. Caius, while Master Page wants his son-in-law to be Slender. Neither fancy Fenton who has a dissolute past, but, nonetheless, Anne wants her man.

Two acting performances should be cited. Davies’ Falstaff is very unusual because he is played like a wide-eyed innocent. Yes, he is a lecherous, amoral rogue who fancies himself a seductive lover, but Davies has instilled in him a sense of naivety, which allows for the wives to con him repeatedly. He is not stupid, just artless, even gullible, and so arrogant that he can’t see himself for what he really is. Yet he laughs at his own folly at the end, and because Davies has imbued Falstaff with this quality of almost open gentleness, his whole behaviour throughout the play hangs together. Even his way of talking is akin to childlike wonder, and it does remind you that Falstaff is, underneath it all, an English gentleman. In other words, Davies lets us see the hints of gentility that still exists under the layers of dissipation. This is an aspect of Falstaff I have never seen before, and it is a revelation. Davies has made Falstaff much more than just a dirty old man. It’s hard to imagine that the sly, ruthless, manipulative Falstaff of the Henry plays would allow himself to be tricked repeatedly, but Davies’s Falstaff is a sitting duck.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Stratford Festival, 2019
Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford with Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Photo: by David Hou)

Most performances of Master Ford portray him like a smoking volcano or a coiled spring, but Abbey, like Davies, has taken a different approach. His Ford is not a buffoon. Abbey is calm and matter-of-fact, which makes his jealousy all the scarier. He is reasonable in his obsession with his wife’s infidelity, and as I watched Abbey’s Ford, I thought that this is how men who are domestic murderers must act. They sincerely believe in fixed ideas, but don’t go around like crazed monsters. Like Ford, they are methodical in planning their revenge. Even when Falstaff slips through his fingers, Abbey’s reaction is not a mad frenzy, but reasoned, if irritated, calm. When discussing his situation and his plans, he is utterly rational and sensible – again, a very unusual treatment of Ford which puts him in a new perspective. When the error of his ways is pointed out to him, do we really believe Ford accepts his wife innocence totally? I’m not so sure.

Wilson and Walker are certainly into the spirit of merriment, but their voices pierce the ear, with Walker being the worst offender. She was screechy in Private Lives, and even louder in Merry Wives. Nonetheless, the women understand their characters well. Wilson is crisp, controlled and clever, and Walker is the sexy siren. Strong performances also come from Carlson, Spencer-Davis, Mac, Peacock and Dodd. As I said, an A-list of actors, all of whom try and give their characters individuality, even eccentricities. Mac’s Slender, in particular, is an endearing fool.

While certainly amusing, this production suffers from over-direction. For example, Cimolino has used brief vignettes involving townspeople and children to cover scene changes, but the children don’t project so you can’t hear them, while some of these vignettes take place in the well of the stage surrounding the thrust so you can’t see them, all of which is an irritation. There is a lot of what I call crotch humour, which corresponds with Cimolino trying to find funny things where none exist, including Dr. Caius’ impenetrable French accent. Shakespeare wrote in the accent (“Vat is you sing?”), but I’d still like to make out the words. In fact, Cimolino has concentrated on physical humour more than verbal. Several of the characters either malaprop the words, or are pompous windbags, or struggle to make sense of speech, but these instances aren’t really highlighted, so humour inherent in the text is lost.

Cimolino has set his production in the 1950s somewhere in the west, given the cowboy garb and accoutrements in the Garter Inn. Designer Julie Fox has fashioned for the Pages’ home, a charming thatched Tudor cottage with a garden, a white picket fence, and two puffy clouds above. Thus the backdrop is bucolic innocence, which is perfect for merry Windsor. The interiors are Fifties motel (Falstaff’s room at the inn) and Fifties chic (Alice Ford’s bedroom), but Fox has also thrown in spot sets like beauty parlour hairdryers for the ladies to plot under. Fox’s period costumes are colourfully and cleverly character-specific. In fact, the whole design element is gorgeous, augmented by Jason Hand’s almost golden lighting. Berthold Carrière has composed a delightful, almost sitcom score, with lyrics by actor Marion Adler.

Before I leave, I have to ask a serious question. In 1985, I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Merry Wives set in the 1950s, which is now considered legendary. It too featured the merry wives plotting under hairdryers. Is this Stratford production an homage or did Cimolino come up with the Fifties setting out of the blue? I’d really like to know.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Paula Citron
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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