Design by Jessica Worrall, music by Conrad Nelson. With Fine Time Fontayne
as Robert Shallow, Conrad Nelson as Sir Hugh Evans, Adam Sunderland as Abraham
Slender, Roy North as George Page, Barrie Rutter as Sir John Falstaff, Gerard
McDermott as Bardolph / Rugby, Andrew Pollard as Pistol / William, Matthew
Booth as Nim / Fenton, Joanna Swain as Mistress Page, Michelle Hardwick
as Ann Page / Robin, Maggie Ollerenshaw as Mistress Ford, Tom Silburn as
Peter Simple, Marie Louise O'Donnell as Mistress Quickly, Andrew Whitehead
as Doctor Caius, Geoffrey Leesley as Frank Ford, and Andrew Vincent as Host.
At first sight, The Merry Wives of Windsor might seem an odd choice
of play for a company who pride themselves on doing Shakespeare in northern
accents. In this touring production, however, the locality moves with the
company. Thus, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the fat woman of Brentford
becomes the fat woman of Wakefield, and the venue for the proposed marriage
of Anne Page and Slender became Harewood House, a popular local setting for
weddings. The obvious enjoyment of the audience, though, was due not only
to these accommodations to locality, but, above all, to strong ensemble playing
by a very talented cast who were obviously hugely enjoying themselves.
Perhaps partly because this is a touring production, the company have not
encumbered themselves with props. A simple green carpet covered most of the
floorspace of the West Yorkshire's larger auditorium, the Quarry Theatre.
It is loosely suggestive of a golf course, and the plus fours worn by Adam
Sunderland's deliciously idiotic, P. G. Wodehouse-ish Abraham Slender echo
the association. Apart from that, this is that richest sort of staging, poor
theatre: a simple rail and curtain are used to conceal Sir John Falstaff,
a stepladder is Herne's Oak, and Sir John (who takes refuge from the fairies
up the ladder) disguises himself as Herne by wearing bicycle handlebars, complete
with bell (which is duly rung). Costumes are also simple: Joanna Swain's Mistress
Page is sensible and matronly in a purple trouser suit, Maggie Ollerenshaw's
Mistress Ford more obvious prey for Falstaff in a smart red check suit with
a short skirt, while her husband disguises himself as Brook by wearing a pork
pie hat which he jumps up and down on when he learns how Falstaff escaped
him. The nearest thing to flamboyance is the extravagantly camp walk of Andrew
Whitehead's Doctor Caius, whose wildly fierce "By Gars!" modulate
by the end of the evening to a firmly Yorkshire "Bugger!"
All the cast are strong, and some are outstanding. Barrie Rutter is in his
element as a Sir John whose artificial belly means he can hardly get up or
sit down, yet is always ready to caper at a lady. Both Mistress Ford and Mistress
Page time their responses to him perfectly, making both buck-baskets scenes
hilarious, especially when Geoffrey Leesley's frenzied Ford throws the clothes
behind him over the heads of his hapless servants. The wellington-booted musical
fairies, singing and playing the music of Conrad Nelson, who also acts Sir
Hugh, could perform as an act in their own right. But perhaps the most engaging
performance comes from Marie Louise O'Donnell, whose Mistress Quickly is a
whimsical Irish skivvy who brings something of the spirited mischief and energy
of Synge to the part, making her less an accessory to the plot than a means
of unlocking the very considerable reservoirs of emotion and fantasy on which
this strange but pleasing play draws.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.