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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.

One of the things that I try to see more of is puppetry for adults. Not that kind of puppetry (although I have seen that, great show). And so, when I went up to Edinburgh this August to see a friend and take in some shows, I was scrolling through the listings for puppets and found “Puppet Richard II”. I hadn’t had a great experience the last time I saw Richard II and thought, “well, why not go see it again? It’ll be some silly adaptation, no doubt, mainly sock puppets to entertain, let’s have a look”. 

I think there are few things about which I have been so wrong.

Puppet Richard II is one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.

Gregory Gudgeon is a serious actor with a list of credits that include both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe and decided to do Richard II as a puppet show in order to break up what he considered to be a very dialogue-heavy play, so that people could appreciate it.

“It’s very gestural … it transmits the feeling of what’s going on even if the words are a bit archaic. … The movement of a puppet takes on what you’re doing and speaking the lines becomes secondary to the ballet.”Gregory Gudgeon

And it works. I really works. Using a variety of spoons and other common household objects (The Duke of York is a shoehorn), Gregory imbues these puppets with greater and greater life, manipulating them with life-like gestures until you barely notice his face above or next to them, delivering the lines of the play. As far as you are concerned in that moment, the character *is* a stuffed toy. One reviewer praised “THE most moving John of Gaunt death, played by a glove”.

Award-winning performance of a shoe-horn.

As the play goes on, and Richard loses his throne to Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, the puppets are used to emphasise the shift in power – Richard goes from being played by Gregory in a yellow crown to a soft toy stuck to a chair to becoming a wooden figurine carved to look like Gregory himself, emphasising the continuity of the character. Similarly, Lucas Augustine, who plays Bolingbroke, initially begins just by voicing what looks like a ping-pong bat with a picture of Lucas’ face on it. By the end, he has become the character and sits in the throne at the end of the room.

On that: the room that we were in could sit a maximum of fifteen people who were quite fond of each other. The second half of the play, as it becomes more dramatic, moves from the puppetry set to the middle of the room, where there is no room to store props, so the audience are abruptly handed various puppets to hold while the play unfurls.

I had happened, because we were late arriving, to find myself sitting next to the throne in which Gregory-as-Richard-II sits to deliver his final soliloquays. Less than a foot away from me, delivering a performance fit for any RSC stage. It was intensely marvellous.

Unfortunately, if you’re right next to them, they’re right next to you, and as it happened, my friend that I was visiting had left during the interval, and I was worried that he was waiting for me outside and kept checking my phone, which prompted a rebuke from Richard the bloody II, whoc asked if I had somewhere to be. A mortifying moment. I quickly explained that I was going to send one text to let my friend know what was happening, and he seemed to think I was politely covering up being bored, so I had to say, “No, mate, this is fucking incredible, you keep right at it”, and he smiled and snapped back into character.

As I wrote to another friend, afterwards:

“Honestly, you don’t appreciate what someone can do with puppets to convey emotion when all you have to go on is comedy.

The guy was playing a three inch stuffed cloth tied around the wooden knob at the top of a chair with all the intensity of an RSC performance, it was riveting.”

Richard II, literally clinging to the throne.

There is possibly no greater compliment I can pay a performance than to go and see it again immediately. I went again the next day, so I could see it from the beginning through to the end without interrupting, and it was just as good. I do therefore have to conclude that the first performance I saw at the Sam Wanamaker was just really not that good.

 

Henry Bolingbroke, taking the crown as Henry IV.

Puppetry appears to be one of the rarest performing arts, and if you aren’t around for the London Puppetry festival, it can be difficult to find performances for adults that aren’t weird avant-garde experimental theatre. Gregory and Lucas have produced a play that is funny, tragic, and moving in all the right places. With puppets.


I just wish I could go again. Apparently they do private performances, and I have a thirty birthday to plan…

 

Puppet King Richard II/Edinburgh from Gregory Gudgeon on Vimeo.

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