The Merry Wives of Windsor @ Globe Theatre, London

Cast List:
Christopher Benjamin, Edward Holtom, Richard Linnell, Paul Woodson, Gregory Gudgeon, Michael Garner, Serena Evans, Ceri-Lyn Cissone, Alfie Keenan, Jack Martyn, Andrew Havill, Sarah Woodward, Paul Woodson, Philip Bird, Sue Wallace, Barnaby Edwards, Peter Gale, William Belchambers, Nathan Amzi, Gareth Armstrong, Jonty Stephens, Gerard McCarthy

Directed by
Christopher Luscombe

When Christopher Luscombes production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was first staged at the Globe in 2008, it was met with both popular and critical acclaim.

It struck such a chord, in fact, that it has not only returned this year with most of the original cast, but is also set to tour America and Britain in the autumn. It was not, however, universally loved two years ago, and this time around I feel that I may be adding my name to the list of dissenting voices.

Undoubtedly, this production is played up for laughs. An article in the programme explains how Merry Wives is the forebear of the modern TV sit-com, and as we watch Andrew Havells Frank Ford jumping up and down like Basil Fawlty the parallels between the two seem clear, if not laboured.
I have no problem with a production being milked purely for humour, but there is always a risk in such an approach. There are many plays one can watch relatively unmoved, and yet still appreciate the emotions that are offered up, the cleverness of the concept, or the complexity of the characterisations. When, however, a play is reduced to being merely a comedy (in the popular sense of the word), it will either make you laugh or it wont. And if it doesnt, then theres not much left to take an interest in.

The acting here consists of shrieked words, wagging fingers, wild arm gestures, silly dances and ridiculously long pauses between lines. Were it not for this final element all might be fine, but perfect comic timing is something of a must in a production like this. Get the delivery right and the all important comedic pace naturally follows, meaning that any visual gestures only add to the overall effect. Here, however, the emphasis on visual humour destroys the beauty of the lines themselves. At one point, Christopher Benjamins Falstaff keeps going to walk off the stage, but repeatedly returns to utter the next line. It elicits some laughs, but shows no regard for the fact that these lines reveal most when uttered collectively, reeled off thick and fast.

William Belchamberss Abraham Slender embodies many of the problems that are inherent elsewhere. His simpering voice delivers the lines flatly, and it feels as if he is providing an impersonation of a poor amateur actor. Of course, his approach is quite deliberate, but it seems a shame that the talents of this able cast are being channelled into producing such a strange set of performances.

Some parts do fare better. Sue Wallace is effective as Mistress Quickly because the role can cope with a considerable degree of hyperbolic acting. Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as Mrs Page and Mrs Ford similarly succeed in making some of their lines genuinely funny, and it is hard not to raise a smile every time that they do their pat-a-cake routine. The second half is also stronger because the dynamic farcical scenes help to generate the type of pace that is really required throughout the evening.

If you engage with the humour of this Merry Wives you should be in store for a delightful evening, but if you dont you are unlikely to find much else in the production to appeal. This is the fact to consider when deciding whether to go, although I should add that, unlike me, the majority of people did seem to be laughing their heads off.

After The Merry Wives of Windsors run at the Globe ends on 2 October, it will tour America (14 October 7 November) and the UK (16 November 11 December).

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