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Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Shakespearean comedy meets The Only Way Is Essex – with a dash of EastEnders. Though these elements do not seem natural bedfellows, let me assure you that the RSC’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor makes this combination seem both obvious and effortless, the concept heightening the comedy and creating a setting as familiar to its audience as Shakespeare’s original text would have been to his.

I entered this play expecting a joyous romp (which I got), but I never anticipated the empowering social message disguised as a comedy. The titular “merry wives” triumph over the lecherous old men and jealous, abusive husbands of the world through a combination of female solidarity and astounding wit. Merry Wives has been hailed as one of the first plays in which the female characters drive the comedy, instead of being merely accessories to it, and the two female protagonists – played by Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey – at times outshine Falstaff’s notoriously raunchy physical comedy.

The explicitly feminist thrust of the play is well received by the audience, and is a refreshing change from other Shakespearean comedies. Too often the female characters, especially wives, are mocked, scorned, and abused, but in this play they orchestrate the downfall of a lustful fiend, teaching their husbands to trust and respect them at the same time. Furthermore, the fact that the play concludes with Ann entering into a genuine, loving and happy marriage that she chose for herself is unusual within the genre, which usually ends with an unhappy, arranged, forced heteronormative marriage which restores societal order (as in Measure for Measure).

Although the production has a resoundingly feminist stance – furthered by the presence of Queen Elizabeth I herself within the play – this by no means overshadows David Troughton’s amazingly comic performance as Falstaff. Following on from his previous RSC role as the blood thirsty general Titus Andronicus, this is an impressive and drastic change in tone and character. His literal dressing down as the play unfolds is a skilfully handled message about the dismantling of toxic masculine attitudes, particularly as he dresses as Herne the hunter – a symbol of ancient England and masculinity.

The costuming is fantastic, embodying the unlikely but successful marriage between past and present which makes this play spectacular. The outfits are a synthesis of Elizabethan and modern dress – ruffs and jewels are combined with animal-print bandage dresses and short shorts. These elements of modern clothing help to root the production in the present and signify character traits to the audience, making for a more accessible and enjoyable experience; this is backed up by the introductions to each character in the opening of the play, a simple gesture to ensure the audience can grasp the plot trajectory.

The RSC’s production is a tribute to modernity as well as history, a piece of truly feminist theatre which retains the entertainment value of Shakespeare’s original text. Through a combination of genuinely empowering social messaging and pure hysterical comedy, Laird has created a standout production.

  • Comedy
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Fiona Laird
  • Cast includes: David Troughton, Beth Cordingly, Rebecca Lacey, Ishia Bennison, Katy Brittain, Jonathan Cullen, Paul Dodds, Vince Leigh
  • Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
  • Until 22nd September 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Megan is a second-year English Literature student at the University of Sheffield with a lifelong passion for theatre. She has participated in many theatrical productions, devised her own performances and has even written a research paper on the power of theatre to aid the social development of autistic children. She is particularly enamoured with the work of Shakespeare and how different productions take on the challenge of representing his plays, yet she enjoys all different types of theatre.

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