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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.

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 of the secondary characters hurriedly delivers a gross-out speech to distract us all from that fact. Set seven years into the Siege of Troy, Troilus is Paris’ brother, and madly in love with a woman called Cressida, whose father has defected to the Greeks. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, promised to ah, acquaint them. Meanwhile, the Greeks are all hanging around outside in the city in tents, arguing about what to do and not a little bit annoyed with Achilles, who has huffed off to his tent to hang out with Petroclus and is refusing to set a heroic example to the rest of the Greek army. Troilus and Cressida hook up, but the next day, a prisoner exchange means that Cressida is sent to the Greeks to be with her father, and she makes the best of it by getting with Diamene. Troilus is devastated. A bunch of people are killed offstage including Petroclus. Achilles kills Hector in grief.  The play ends. Hamlet it is not.

What the RSC did with it though, was pretty clever. Set in some dystopian steampunk universe, with high-octane acting, shirtless men and one of the best percussionists in the world providing the soundtrack, they did a pretty good job of entertaining me, which is ultimately really what these plays were written for.

He actually only got round to putting a shirt on for curtain call.

The RSC went all out on diversity, going with a gender balanced cast, making the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicit and getting a deaf actor to play Cassandra.

Charlotte Arrowsmith was pretty good at Cassandra – she signed most of her lines and had another actor vocalise the important bits. It has to be said that I didn’t in fact notice that she was Deaf until I saw the interval interviews, so well done on a great performance.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

The RSC to make the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicitly sexual and it really, really worked. They didn’t just shoehorn in some queers because it’s fashionable, it was written that way. Whatever Shakespeare’s original intentions were with that dialogue, he made a deliberate editorial choice to make it ambiguous enough in 1604 that you could interpret it as super gay and thank God I live in 2018 where that vision can be realised.

This is fine.

My laurel crown has to go to Oliver Ford Davies, however, who stole every scene he appeared in as Pandarus. Given that Troilus and Cressida are both boring characters, Pandarus’ creepiness and voyeurism was really funny and a highlight of the play, as well as delivering what was one of the funniest lines:

“PANDARUS
Amen. Whereupon I will show you a chamber with a
bed; which bed, because it shall not speak of your
pretty encounters, PRESS IT TO DEATH: away!”

The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that we were only one of four attendees at this live broadcast. I have to blame this on Vue making it almost impossible to find and book the showing. It took me several goes, and having to shift from my phone to a desktop computer, to be able to buy a ticket. I hope they fix this, because I really appreciated being able to nip up to my local cinema to see a show being aired a hundred miles away, and I don’t want this cultural gift to be taken away from me because of poor ticket sales.

A good night out. Looking forward to the next one.

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