Poor Falstaff. After losing his boyhood bezzie in ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’ (which Shakespeare’s Globe is also staging with great aplomb this summer) he gets indignity after indignity piled on him in this sequel, arguably Shakespeare’s silliest play. The highlight of this production (well, it was never going to be the risible-in-the-wrong-sense plot) is undoubtedly Pearce Quigley’s central performance. He’s not the jovial, boozing Falstaff stereotype: instead, he’s hilariously dour and mournful, a sad sack of a man who’s emptied of his last shred of dignity by the title’s conniving Merry Wives. He becomes the butt of Shakespeare’s humour for his repeated attempts to try it on with wily Mistresses Ford and Page, but Quigley just looks like he just needs a good hug.
Director Elle While’s production has a loosely ’30s aesthetic because... why not. I’m not sure the era of Jazz Age elegance particularly speaks to this rambunctious crew of bawdy, tricksy townspeople but designer Charlie Cridlan’s silky asymmetrical frocks are a delight, and the somewhat underused jazz band comes into its own when choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies’s riotous dance scenes start to simmer.
Still, I’m not sure how any production could make ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ feel like anything less than a very pleasant sideshow. Here, Quigley is the straight man in a production full of lively caricatures – fans of comedy Welshman Fluellen in ‘Henry V’ (admittedly, there can't be many) will doubtless be delighted at Hedydd Dylan’s endearingly ridiculous turn as Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh priest, while Richard Katz plays le Franglais-speaking Doctor Caius with the energy of an electrocuted frog. But Bryony Hannah’s turn as Mistress Ford gets the biggest audience reaction; the groundlings went friskily wild for her whip-cracking come-ons to a lusty Falstaff. Still, despite a plot that revolves around sex and is laden with various Shakespearean filthy jokes of various levels of durability, there’s a frustrating prudishness to it all. There’s no dramatic tension, because the play doesn’t even flirt with the possibility that Falstaff will get his wicked way; it’s basically the story of a lonely man getting elaborately shamed for lusting after local ladies. Plus a few jokes where men get ‘tricked’ into wooing blokes in dresses; in Shakespeare’s day, this was a funny nod to the fact that female parts were played by boys. But today, While’s production makes these moments look rather too much like authentically ’30s-style gay panic.
Shaking your fist at this play’s ridiculousness is about as pointless as trying to send the inevitable droplets of rain back up into the clouds that sent them. The only thing for it is to enjoy some of its most memorable moments, many of which come from Quigley: he brushes his teeth in ale, offers handy-dandy explainers of obscure jests, and feels somehow like the evening’s host, drawing the audience into a comedy that’s lost some of its jokes but none of its central poignancy.