February 9, 2023

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

A snappy pace, crisp comic business, and magnificent central performance from Adam Elms keeps this silly farce buoyant, writes Will Leeman. 


Ah, The Merry Wives. Academics often turn their pointed noses skyward at the mere mention of this raucously silly farce, reportedly written rather hastily for Elizabeth I after demands to see the infamous Sir John Falstaff in love. Many would agree it is possibly not the Bard’s finest hour but the deliciously daft plot, range of flamboyant stereotypes, continuous stream of gags, and suddenly cheery resolution put me in mind of ‘Allo ‘Allo. For here is a fat, greasy, and pompous old fool chasing younger lasses, a comically perturbed French physician and Welsh parson who mangle English, a manically jealous husband brought to mad paroxysms of rage, a Cockney thug brandishing an axe and many more of the like. The absurdity, it appears, must be embraced; broad strokes, high stakes, and a gifted ensemble. 


Marco Ghelardi’s production, unfolding on the pretty miniature stage in Cambridge’s Robinson College gardens, scores highly on almost all counts. Plotting is simple: the grossly overweight and randy knight Sir John Falstaff finds himself penniless and so devises a scheme to seduce two wealthy married women, a plan that breaks down when one of his discarded followers informs their husbands of this deception. Unbeknown to the men – one of whom, Ford, consumed with jealousy, disguises himself to test his wife’s fidelity – the two gossipy mistresses seek revenge on Falstaff, with hilarious results. But, not content with just a single story strand, Shakespeare adds a subplot in which a beautiful young virgin is chased by various idiotic suitors. Accusations concerning a lack of depth are aimed at this comedy; secondary characters are sketchily drawn and indeed, Ghelardi hasn’t always found ways to breathe life into certain roles, which can feel colourless or surplus to requirement. Bits of business or quick gags go from slow to awkward to forced, especially in the wooing of Anne Page or the Hostess’ cruel jest, saved only by a performer’s charisma or a zinger of a line. But, just like the Queen herself, we have truly come to see the ‘gross watery pumpion’ that is Sir John. 


Thank God, then, for Adam Elms’ magnificent central performance as Falstaff, the secret weapon in Ghelardi’s production. Elms makes a thundering entrance, his enormously belly drooping, his bib caked in an assortment of food, swaying drunkenly, and eyeing everyone with the threatening stare of the playground bully. This is a faintly dangerous, scheming, gluttonous rogue who enjoys throwing his weight around – and what a lot of it there is to throw. Hilariously thinking himself a great Casanova, the scene where he attempts to seduce Mistress Ford and ends up being carried to the Thames in a huge washing basket is as funny as anything I’ve seen in Shakespeares at the RSC or National. But, as Sir John falls further from grace, his journey through love, fear, anger, regret, and finally humiliation is charted perfectly, showing a rather lonely, pathetic figure at heart. Elms dominates the stage, unveiling split-second timing, effortless audience interaction, an impressive physicality, and natural affinity with the text. Indeed, occasionally the pace and energy slacken when he is absent, his comic abilities often keeping the evening fizzy and buoyant. 


However, despite a cast that doesn’t quite bat all the way down, he is not the only one to delight: Rory Thersby’s irascible, preening, ludicrously over-the-top Doctor Caius is hugely entertaining; Fergus Rattigan’s jealousy as Ford descends into a humorous madness; Helen Meadmore’s bubbly go-between Mistress Quickly has a tongue that is never still as she deceives all and sundry; Elizabeth Bouckley’s grotesque Yorkshire Hostess wiggles and jiggles, splutters and cackles to great comic effect; and Kaitlin Howard invests the initially downcast Mistress Ford with a hearty spirit, wicked sense of humour, and mischievous twinkle in her eye – her scenes with Elms as they dance round each other are a joy to behold. And there are some inspired touches: having nabbed a pasty from the audience, Elms proffers it to Howard on his arthritic knee as though it were a diamond ring; Meadmore catches a supposedly amorous spectator out for pinching her bottom; Rattigan’s short stature offers up a slew of gags; characters piss into bushes and leap into baskets and steal booze from the crowd and drag up. It is a triumphant assault on the senses and the funny bone. 


I have a few caveats, the chief ones concerning occasional pace issues, slight indulgence from certain actors whose pauses you could drive a juggernaut through, and the odd static scene which would benefit from more dynamism. In addition, Shakespeare helps not with a huge amount of exposition, unnecessary business surrounding the Caius/Evans duel, an overblown plotline which yields little comic fruit, and the tricky duping of Falstaff, a bizarre and uncomfortable conclusion to such a richly jocular evening. 


But, to quote one of the Bard’s fools, that’s all one, and as this effervescent production gains momentum, it whirls around the stage with an infectious energy through some hysterical set pieces and sparkling performances. Unquestionably, this is a crowd-pleaser, and the audience lapped up the antics; so, grab a picnic hamper and a bottle of prosecco and revel in the sheer ridiculousness of it all – particularly Elms’ bravura turn, which, unsurprisingly gives this show not only a fourth star, but also far much more weight than first expected. 




The Merry Wives of Windsor runs at Robinson College, Cambridge, until August 26th (charity matinee on the 26th) nightly at 7:30pm (Doors from 6:30). 

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