The Merry Wives of Windsor – Pumphouse Theatre, Jan 24, 2023

The Merry Wives of Windsor from William Shakespeare, a comedy of social mores and sexual innuendo is given a ribald and riotous treatment by the Shoreside Theatre troupe.

Players: John Henare, Tobias Mangelsdorf, Paul Thompson, Bess Brookes, John Charlton, Steph Curtis, Aria Harrison-Sparke, Christopher Raven, Stephen Ellis, Charlotte Heath

Director: James Bell

Shakespeare may have laid the genesis for the British Carry On movies, which had a twenty year run from the late Fifties.

The play centres around Sir John Falstaff (John Henare), an obese knight featured in Henry IV Part One and Two. He has struck on hard times in the pocket, and feels he still has enough charms to seduce two married women in the town of Windsor, and hence to their wealth.

He appears in the play heralded by a massive belch. Henare has great enjoyment playing him as a fat, lecherous nobleman. Broad gestures convey his gross behaviour. He is utterly deluded as to his attraction from desirable women.

He sets his eyes on two married women of wealth in the town. Mistress Alice Ford (Aria Harrison-Sparke) and Mistress Margaret Page (Steph Curtis).

He composes a letter of seduction for each one that he sends via a messenger. Being a slovenly lazy man by nature, each letter is identical. The two women come together and see this. From there they hatch plots to lure him in and plan ways to humiliate him.

Much hilarity and belly laughs follow.

We meet the two husbands. Frank Ford (Tobias Mangelsdorf) and George Page (Paul Thompson). Page is genial and hearty, Ford has a darker jealous nature.

It is here that the play explores darker psychological elements.

Whilst Falstaff is overtly comic in his behaviour, Ford gets consumed by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity and goes to disturbingly increased lengths to expose her. He disguises himself as a Mister Brookes and plots with Falstaff in his plan to seduce his wife.

This contrasts with Falstaff’s buffoonery. Ford flies into a rage easily. He ends up dumping Falstaff into a river, from a basket of dirty laundry in which the fat knight was hiding. He physically attacks the same again when he’s disguised as the Fat Woman from Brentford.

Mangelsdorf plays him as both repulsive and comic. When he dons his Mr Brook’s disguise, he speaks in Irish, Scottish and Latin accents. It leads us to wonder, who is worst of the two gentlemen?

The comedy is telegraphed in broad gestures. The ensemble players make it easy to follow the convoluted plot.

As with all Shakespeare’s plays (save Macbeth), there is related sub-plot.

The Page family has a daughter, Anne (Charlotte Heath), who is to be married off. The father favours a wimp. The mother wants the local Doctor Caius (Christopher Raven). Played with a broad French accent in the manner of Monty Python. Anne has her own sweetheart.

A large part of the humour comes from the different accents used and the mis-understandings that ensue. Inspiration for the Carry On movies as previously mentioned.

Possibly the central plot device revolves around the character of Mistress Quickly (Bess Brookes). She is the Doctor’s housekeeper and general fixer. A broad lower-class accent belies the fact that she is clever and is the facilitator for all the plotting. A real George Bernard Shaw character. Played splendidly by Brookes.

The Outdoor Pumphouse Theatre is a perfect setting for the production. The audience are inside the play as much as the Groundlings were at the Globe productions in Ellerslie, of recent times.

Props are minimal. But with the staging of the final sequence, with the setting in a forest at midnight with fairies and elves, the play blends in with the real park around us.

Shakespeare did not favour this play so much, personally. That belies the depth of social commentary that the play contains. The setting of a town in Elizabethan times, and the classes from servants to middle class to nobility. People’s behaviour changes little over the course of centuries.

The Merry Wives of Windsor in these times could refer to Camilla, Kate and Meghan. That present-day surname is a construct as it was changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The comedy of manners and errors is unchanged.

These Merry Wives are a delight to experience.

Rev Orange Peel

The Merry Wives Of Windsor is playing now through February 18th. Click here for tickets and showtimes.