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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

Merry Wives of Windsor was the first Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered that made no pretence to be literature, and is not treated as such by teachers and people who would make me study what are living, breathing texts. Allegedly it was written at the behest of Elizabeth I, who loved the character of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s earlier plays and demanded a play where he was the main character.

It is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, which probably explains why this RSC production opens with an actual introductory credits on a projector, presumably because they couldn’t rely on the audience knowing who everyone is. And that is a shame, because it was absolutely hilarious and I think one of my favourite plays.

Falstaff is a knight who has gone to seed and arrives in Windsor short on money and determined to marry well in his old age. He therefore attempts to woo the wives of two gentlemen in Windsor by sending them identical loveletters, but the two women are friends and, after swapping notes, decide to have fun with this rapacious, gross man. Unfortunately their husbands find out about the loveletters too, and one of them takes it seriously, and commissions Falstaff to seduce his own wife, so he can know she is an adulterer. The stage is set, as it were, for a ridiculous comedy of people trying to hide from each other while spying or seducing someone else, and eventually realising they are the dupe themselves.

 

So gross, and so well acted.

There are minor changes – the play is set in Essex and this was reflected in the scary mother-in-law being referred to as the Widow of Brentwood rather than Brentford. There also an entire farcical scene around Falstaff hiding in a wheely bin that in the original play is some kind of laundry basket that I presume would have made sense to an Elizabethan audience that made no sense to me when I looked it up. Other than that, I believe they went through the text as is, and, as I said to my fellow theatre-goers in the interval, I could barely believe it had been written by Shakespeare. We talk about this guy as this eloquent, high culture wit who has shaped the entire English language, but he also wrote a play in which I just spent ten minutes watching a man in a fatsuit trying to hide under a sun lounger. It was at that point that I began to understand why the proles flocked to the Globe. These plays were never written to be studied, or read for pleasure, they are written to be performed and to entertain.

And entertained I was. There is a subplot about three men vying for the hand of one of the merry wives’ daughters while she is smitten with someone else entirely that plays out in between farcical Benny Hill scenes of people hiding in wheely bins and dressing up as tyrannical women that largely carries on undisturbed until the grand finale where suddenly everyone is running around on stage getting lost and mistaking each other in the dark, which ends happily.

 

The only minor criticism we had was really the RSC’s decision to give the whole thing a The Only Way is Essex vibe is that there was some elements that appeared to be mocking Essex working-class people. But this was minor, and for the most part, the characters are ridiculous and written to be so. Great show, great production.

Solid Shakespeare crew.

 

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

Michelle Terry as Hotspur.

Henry IV Part 1, or “Hotspur” as they subtitled it, is one of the most popular plays in Shakespeare’s canon, which was good to see after one of the least popular. The story of a rebellion against King Henry IV by the tempestuous Sir Henry Percy leading to the castastrophic Battle of Shrewsbury where Percy is slain is intertwined with a secondary story of young Prince Hal, future Henry V, wasting his days away with a band of wastrels amusing themselves in between drinking buts with pranks and petty thefts. The bildungsroman of Prince Harry from jack-the-lad to King of England is the central plot of all three Henry plays, so the Globe decided to put all three on with the same ensemble cast to make that point.

Having come from Richard II, of which I did not have a high opinion, I was pleased to be shown what a serious play done well looked like. This play also had gender swaps (Hal is played by Sarah Amankwah, who completely nails transitioning from gadfly to heir to the throne) but it is presented as just a practical reality rather than a marketing USP. In fact, I was really impressed with the fact that at one point, one of the characters calls on his wife to sing a song for the audience and a male actor stepped out in a dress and delivers a somber song with a lyre that was initially taken with some amusement by the audience but who then immediately took the song as in the tone as presented to them.

The happy-go-lucky Prince Hal.

The battle scenes and drama between the two sides, royal and rebellious, is powerful and at times, when battle is finally joined, breath-taking. Michelle Terry plays the feisty and furious Percy, and, let me say it now, is fit af. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, as she justifiably dominated every scene. The difference between plays like Pericles and plays like Richard III and Henry IV in terms of their stakes and your investment in the plot is really quite, uh, dramatic.

Having said that, the show is stolen by Falstaff every time he sets foot on stage. The hedonistic companion of Hal, running away from anything that looks difficult and urging everyone to drink harder and deeper, is the comic character of the play and Helen Schlesinger blew everyone away with her performance. Again the audience interaction element of performances at the Globe came into their own with such a character.

Which was all the more significant given Falstaff kept forgetting her lines. As it happened, I’d booked my tickets for a captioned performance, so all the lines of the play was projected on either side of the stage for people to read (they do audio described and relaxed performances as well). I really like captions, and particularly for Shakespeare they make it so much easier to understand what is going on. But in this performance, it was also apparent when the actors had swapped lines, or forgotten them, and it was interesting that Falastaff did this in nearly every scene. Her efforts to cover up fluffs with little stage tricks which to an audience without captions looked like audience interaction or comic moments became somewhat obvious the second you have the script in front of you, and laid it somewhat bare. It was an unfortunate look at how the sausage is made.

The riotous Falstaff.

I don’t know whether for a Shakespearian audience, the events of Henry IV Pt 1 must have seemed like relatively recent history or not, but for me it certainly felt a lot closer to something “real” than the plays of antiquity like Troilus and Cressida or Pericles. The addition of the flags around the theatre of the main protagonists and the very real historical figures who shaped the England we live in today made the blurb seem more relatable than some of the others they’ve tried to sell me on:

Two Harrys: Harry Hotspur and Prince Hal.
Sons to enemy fathers: Henry Percy and King Henry IV.
Hotspur is preparing to lead an army against the King – incensed at the King’s dismissal of the Percy family’s demands.
But Hal is occupied in the pubs and streets of Eastcheap with his companion Sir John Falstaff, uninterested in his inheritance and in the fate of his country.
In a polarised England, each person must choose which truth to believe, and which cause to call their own.

Despite the drama, there was another song and dance number at the end of the play, so I guess that is a thing that the Globe just does. It was great, and I would love every theatre to bring back that tradition instead of just taking a bow.

A scene from Henry lV Part l or Hotspur by The Globe Ensemble @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Finally, I had a spare ticket after one of my Slam crew dropped out, and after advertising it on Facebook, took a friend along who had never seen a Shakespeare play before and is more into death metal than theatre. He absolutely loved it, said it was unlike anything he had expected, Shakespeare was amazing, and that he’d had a great night out. I feel like I have graduated from a Shakespeare noob to nerd. :D

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A long-but-condensed guide to the even-longer Mueller report (April 2019)

April 22, 2019

Originally posted to Facebook on 19th April, 2019. Edited for clarity. Previous comments: Your Trump/Russia Briefing (January 2018)Trump/Russia: The Michael Cohen Update (April 2018) * Yeah, this report in absolutely no way exonerates Donald Trump. Indeed, it contains pretty clear, and substantiated, allegations of corruption, witness-tampering, obstruction, and pretty much everything that all of his […]

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Shakespeare Slam – King Lear

November 28, 2018

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. Well, that was…intense. Ian McKellen was asked by the Chicester Festival Theatre, where he started his professional career many decades ago, if he would star in a play of his choosing, and he felt that he would like to “have a another crack at King Lear”. […]

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Shakespeare Slam – Troilus and Cressida

November 16, 2018

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play. We kick off our quest with a RSC live broadcast of Troilus and Cressida at Vue Wood Green. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakepeare’s rarest performed plays, probably because it is rubbish. The plot is confusing, all moments of high drama are ultimately fudged, and […]

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Antisemitism on the Left and the Whitewashed Documentary

June 30, 2017

The Whitewashed documentary on the Chakrabarti Report and antisemitism in the Labour Party was released yesterday. It interviews various people who submitted written testimony to the Chakrabarti inquiry and feel like they were completely ignored. I did not look up the backgrounds of the people who contributed to this documentary, deliberately, because it does not […]

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On Croatia, Eurovision, and homophobia.

May 16, 2017

Originally published to Facebook.   I posted several times last night about Croatia’s Eurovision entry (which was ROBBED), and on each post someone different (LGBT and not) made sure to post that in 2005 Jacques Houdek gave an interview in which he made some unpleasant comments about gay people and same sex marriage and was […]

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Applying “least harm” to every meal.

December 21, 2016

I believe in a clear hierarchy of sentience with us at the top followed by mammals, general vertebrates, invertebrates, plants and then bacteria, and I do my best to keep the suffering I cause for the sake of my own survival as low on that hierarchy as possible, as self-awareness and feelings of pain and […]

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Israel is not permanently right-wing.

March 22, 2015

Despite polling predictions that Israeli voters were abandoning him, Binyamin Netanyahu won by far the biggest share of seats in the Knesset last Wednesday. There has since been much despair in my social feeds and the international press that Israel is right-wing and only sliding further in that direction. In my opinion, for all this […]

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Reverend Sarah McCulloch at your service

September 18, 2014

And so, on the 26th July, I was ordained an interfaith minister: It was a ceremony that was powerful, meaningful, and occasionally naff, but I’m never going to forget a second. I remember when I was 5, thinking that I’d quite like to be a minister – 20 years later, I’ve got Reverend in front of […]

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