The Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is either a very good panto or a very bad staging of Shakespeare. When watching this silly extravaganza I was leaning towards the latter as there is a limit of cringe comedy I can stomach, especially if it takes two hours and a half.
But let us start with the positives. The director Fiona Laird decided to focus on frantic slapstick stage movement which suits this bawdy comedy very well. There is not a dull moment on stage: the merry characters dance, fence, and incessantly visit one another at their homes while wearing silly disguises. The dramaturgical decision to set the action in modern-ish Essex was brilliant too, the accents and the manners, satirised elsewhere, also here are a hoot. The wives, Mrs Page and Mrs Ford, spend lots of time at nail and hair salons, don the sparkliest outfits possible and wear high heels even when relaxing by the pool.
The main plot involving them and the aging but still very naughty Falstaff, a retired knight, is well done and both Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly deliver their part of the story with great comic timing. Sadly the decision to create the most ridiculous caricature out of Falstaff, a barely moving, grotesque heap of fat with greasy hair takes any potential bawdiness and sexiness out of the equation. There is absolutely no worry he might make the merry wives’ husbands into cuckolds – and in the end he is reduced to a panto dame, yet another caricature. And thus the whole melancholy of Falstaff’s character in Shakespeare’s play is gone, which is the chief redeeming character trait of this rather morally dubious character.
Towards the end of the show it was obvious that the production’s title is misleading. It was ‘The Merry Wives: a very silly panto’ through and through from the stage design to music, at most, a guilty pleasure which you should afford yourself near Christmas. But although I felt shouting out ‘he is behind you’ quite a few times, I did not do so because I was apparently watching Shakespeare.
The biggest problem, however, is that this staging was not bold enough to be a modern Essex satire, and instead went for a rather anachronistic approach forcing actors to wear skinny jeans with Tudor ruffles. The characters instead of dancing to Taylor Swift gyrate to some convoluted version of the minuet. And there are silly sword fights next to the pool.
Laird serves an overlong concoction of cringe comedy that you can enjoy only if you can accept that Shakespeare authored a panto. I have no doubt there will be an audience for this show and I do think it may be a fab and fun outing for the whole family. But if you expect a little bit more, you will be gravely disappointed.