Robert Tanitch reviews The Merry Wives at Rose Theatre, Kingston, Surrey
Barrie Rutter’s touring production is a partnership between Northern Broadsides in Halifax and The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
The merry middle-class wives are no longer living in Windsor in the late 1590’s. They have moved to somewhere north of Leeds in the 1920’s. Sir John Falstaff (played by Barrie Rutter) is thrown into the River Tees and not The Thames.
Shakespeare wrote the play in prose. He was under pressure to write fast. There is a tradition that Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see Falstaff in love and that he dashed off the farce in fourteen days. It’s a nice story and it may even be true.
The dialogue often has a schoolboy fourth form filthy wit.
Falstaff, broke as usual, decides to seduce two respectable married women, hoping to get some sex and money out of them. The wives, livid to receive identical love letters, join forces to teach him a lesson. Humiliated though he is, he keeps coming back for more punishment.
In order to evade an insanely jealous husband, he is forced to hide in a dirty laundry basket and is thrown unceremoniously into the river in mid-winter; and, as everybody knows the fat knight (“that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly”) has “a kind of alacrity in sinking”.
Presumably the wives are doing what Barrie Rutter, in his role as director, wants them to do; but they are doing too much. They need to be curbed and especially so when they are “acting” for the benefit of Falstaff who is hiding in a closet and can hear them but cannot see them.
The production comes to life in the final scene at dead of night with the galumphing fairies and the three eloping couples on three different sorts of bicycle. The venom with which the citizens turn on Falstaff is surprisingly nasty.
The Merry Wives will visit Leeds, Cheltenham, Scarborough, Huddersfield, Guildford, York and Liverpool.