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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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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”. He asked for the smallest stage they had for intimacy with the audience and after a successful run, they transferred it to the Duke of York theatre in London, which is one of the smallest in the West End, made smaller by removing a load of the seating. I caught an encore of the NT Live performance held at the Curzon Bloomsbury.

Ian McKellan is 79 and has basically said this is his last major Shakespeare role and I am not surprised that he’s giving it up. Over the course of three and a half hours, he gave a high-energy performance that involved a lot of shouting, raving half naked in pouring rain for half an hour, carrying another person across the stage, and generally thoroughly wearing me out and I was only watching him on a screen.

I don’t know where the abbatoir scenes are set historically but it was creepy af.

All the more surprising given that King Lear isn’t actually in a lot of the play and disappears for most of an Act. I’d never seen or read it and so I did not realise that there’s actually a whole load of subplots that I’d never absorbed in popular culture. King Lear is based on a legendary British King described by Geoffrey of Monmouth who divided his kingdom among two of his daughters and immediately regretted it when they failed to keep him in the style to which he was accustomed. Interestingly, Geoffrey’s story ends with Leir taking his kingdom back by force, but Shakespeare evidently thought this a dissatisfying ending and instead has pretty much everyone die horribly.

The Earl of Gloucester about to lose it to a creepy Regan

This was played up in Jonathan Munby’s staging – a subplot features the Earl of Gloucester, who is hosting Lear’s daughter Regan and the Duke of Cornwall when he is framed by his bastard son Edmund as a traitor, having already dispatched his legitimate brother Edgar in similar fashion (who then spend much of the play also covered in blood and dirt pretending to be mad so he isn’t murdered). Gloucester, having gone out in a storm to look for Lear after he has been turned away by both his daughters as a burden to them, then has his eyes gouged out. This scene is pretty gross and drawn out. It’s set in an abbatoir and Regan’s contribution is to put on the radio and writhe sadistically in delight, which was all quite off-putting. Gloucester is then turned into a pathetic figure and both he and Lear spend much of the next hour gloomily roaming round the stage covered in muck and sweat bewailing the state of affairs.

Two older gentlemen getting thoroughly dishevelled and messed up in the name of art.

It was a good play but the first half lasted about forty minutes longer than I wanted it to, and basically, it’s not Hamlet if we’re looking at Shakespear’s epicly long plays, and really there was far more shouting at the tops of people’s voices than I thought was necessary. A bit too high energy for me.

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Shakespeare Slam – Troilus and Cressida

November 16, 2018

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 the play just kind of stops suddenly and one […]

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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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“Polarised is important because… of Homophobia.”

August 21, 2014

Originally published on EQView on behalf of the Polarised Project, a documentary on LGBT mental health. While the general acceptance of LGBT people has happened faster than I can hardly believe when I think about it, we still live in a society where homophobia happens and every queer has to dwell, even for a second, […]

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Seriously, stop comparing Jews to the Nazis. Please.

July 20, 2014

Imagine that your parents and the majority of everyone they knew had all been systematically been massacred by a particular sect when you were a kid. Imagine you grew up in a family that was utterly traumatised by this massacre and was determined to avoid anything similar ever happening again. Imagine that growing up with […]

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