In the programme of the Globe’s new Merry Wives of Windsor there’s an essay by one Dr Nick de Somogyi, evidently a distinguished Shakespeare scholar, who posits the idea that this play is the forerunner to the TV sitcom.
Taking the theory literally, director Christopher Luscombe gives us a production crammed full of sketchy characterisations, weaker-than-weak gags, the hammiest of acting and comedy based on silly voices and ridiculous costumes. I can see the BBC commissioning a series.
Another characteristic of sitcom is its facility for swallowing up professional talent and, with more than a whiff of the learn-the-lines-and-get-on-with-it spirit of weekly rep, the cast squander most of the skills they have in a broad-brush cartoon of the shenanigans in Elizabethan Windsor.
Andrew Havill’s nasally-drawling Master Ford is clearly modelled on Basil Fawlty, teetering on the brink of all-out apoplexy and all but spitting feathers and dirty underwear, but sadly John Cleese he ain’t. As his wife, the sparky Mistress Ford, Sarah Woodward brings a dash of brio but her play-acting scenes with Mistress Page (Serena Evans), self-consciously hammy and wildly semaphoring that this is comic subterfuge, is only a notch or two closer to am dram histrionics than most of what we see throughout the evening.
As Mine Host of the Garter, Jonty Stephens takes us as far as mugging can go, a full-blown pantomime dame bar the make-up. Long-faced Christopher Benjamin a memorable Vincent Crummles in the RSC’s original Nicholas Nickleby – has years of experience to draw upon as Sir John in Love but he still doesn’t make much of an impression.
Despite a lack of songs in Shakespeare’s play, Merry Wives seems to look all too often to music as salvation from the slender comedic material. Verdi’s Falstaff is one of the great operas and the RSC, in their most recent none-too-successful staging, presented the play as an all-out musical. Here too, we get a bunch of songs interpolated into the text and a background soundtrack that pings and twangs in all the appropriate places.
There’s a nifty scene change or two popping up out of the walkway island that reposes in a pool of groundlings and, towards the end of the play, there’s an interesting moment that similarly emerges like a hazy oasis in a comedy Sahara. In the post-gulling explanations, where Falstaff faces the realisation of his foolery, the play suddenly widens, as lines ricochet between the characters and fill the whole of the Globe’s breadth. It’s a gorgeous scrap of stage poetry but unfortunately it’s too little too late.
Much as I wish the Globe good business, I sincerely hope that coach-loads of school-kids won’t be bussed in to see this Merry Wives. It’s no alternative to double maths and could prove the death knell to their interest in Shakespeare. There again, if you love weak TV sitcoms (and there was an obedient laughter track provided by much of the audience on the first night), you’ll have a ball.