Monday, May 16, 2011

(No.152) The Merry Wives of Windsor

I remember my parents talking about their attendance at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario during its early days (starting in 1953) when, before the Festival Theatre opened in 1957, the productions were staged in a large circus-like tent. The setting was less than ideal and hearing the dialogue spoken in the tent was a problem when it rained during a performance. I think it was in their reminiscences of this period that I first heard a reference to Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Merry Wives is once again being presented this season in Stratford as part of the Festival's extensive program, having been performed six times in the Festival's almost six decades as a premier world venue for Shakespeare. Merry Wives is the only Shakespearean comedy actually set in England and it has a plot sufficiently convoluted that unless one is familiar with the play the reading of a plot summary in advance of attending will enhance one's enjoyment of the play.

The larger than life central character is Sir John Falstaff, a character from Shakespeare's earlier 2 part play Henry IV. A tradition developed, for which no documentation exists, that Queen Elizabeth I ordered Shakespeare to write another play featuring the Falstaff character. 'Sequels' did not begin in Hollywood.

The Merry Wives production this season, for which Sun Life Financial is the sponsor, is not just good; Pat and I agree it is almost superb. It is well mounted on the Festival Theatre's thrust stage and Frank Galati's direction features fine pacing, smooth scene transitions, several superior performances and an overall direction that facilitates the comedy's laugh lines.

Some directors of Shakespeare plays seek to be 'different', to shine the light on themselves by the use, for example, of anachronism: Roman senators dressed up like English teddy boys of the 1950s or Tudors and Plantagenets stamping about in SS uniforms and similar stage crap (not craft). I think particularly of some Shakespearean productions in the UK that were risible in this respect. This sort of 'creativity' with the Bard's plays in recent decades has not helped the appeal of Shakespeare with wider audiences; it is just confusing and distracting and actually serves as a subtraction from enjoyment.

Stratford's Merry Wives production this season costumes its actors not in Elizabethan costume but in dress that, while 1800s fashion, seems appropriate to the play and its characters. It works as does the production as a whole.

The large Merry Wives company of actors is strong and performs with the skill one expects of a Stratford Festival cast. Geraint Wyn Davies' Falstaff is a treat to watch, a classic take on this drunken, debt ridden schemer. Davies brings laughs just with his waddling strut.

Tom McCamus is as smooth as glass as Master George Page. It is a part that does not begin to showcase his considerable talent which was so wonderfully on view last season as le Vicomte Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons [see the review "Dangerous Liaisons" on www.RickardsRead.com, column no. 106 posted Aug.6,2010].

It is a treat to watch James Blendick, in his 28th season at Stratford, play Master Robert Shallow. His every move and expression is clearly that of a true professional of long experience.

Tom Rooney's Master Francis Ford is a far more challenging role than McCamus' Master Page. His performance seems somewhat uneven but his is a difficult part embracing the husband worried that he is being cuckolded by Falstaff and, in disguise, Master Brook professing to Falstaff a passion for Mistress Ford.

Pat and I each began attending Stratford's productions of Shakespeare plays, as have so many other fortunate students, when we were in secondary school. In subsequent years together we enjoyed such Stratford productions as Alan Bates as Richard III and Christopher Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. In recent years I have found myself (although Pat has not) enjoying Shakespeare less.

I was therefore delighted to have enjoyed The Merry Wives of Windsor more than any Shakespeare play I have attended in some years -- in Stratford, Ontario or elesewhere. Pat and I both recommend it.

The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through Oct. 14, 2011.
Information on tickets etc at www. stratfordshakespearefestival.com

Stratford Ontario is the home, thanks to the Festival, to a wealth of fine places to dine, from pubs such as Bentley's to the preciously upscale like Rundles and The Church Restaurant. I prefer the former; Pat does not.

When in Stratford to attend Merry Wives we enjoyed our meal at Down The Street, in business since 1993 it is a restaurant on the main drag in Stratford (30 Ontario Street). It specializes in organic and locally produced food. Information at: www.downthestreet.ca

by Alastair Rickard

**************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com