The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The early scenes of Philip Breen’s revival are often marked by one of the most unsettling species of theatrical moments: the silence of a joke not being got. True, much Shakespearean humour is now badly dated (all those malapropisms, for instance, palpably in evidence in this play), but the majority of it clearly remains serviceable. Too frequently, however, Breen’s supporting players – especially Calum Findlay’s gormless suitor Slender – simply don’t sell the gags. It is as if they have misunderstood a direction to take their characters seriously, and instead of grounding the comedy they discharge it to earth.

The principals, at least, are all in fine fettle. Desmond Barrit’s generously padded Falstaff thinks himself the height of urbanity as he attempts for mercenary reasons to seduce Mistresses Page and Ford; he is the spirit of Leslie Phillips in the body of Orson Welles. (As the saying goes, inside every fat person there’s a thin person with a lot of room.) Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Mistress Page is a wry Sloaney type (this is Windsor, after all) and Alexandra Gilbreath’s Mistress Ford possesses the vivacious animation of face and voice that she brought to Rosalind in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It a decade ago. These two, but especially Gilbreath’s Ford, fully inhabit the title’s description of them. The figure of Mistress Quickly is underused by Shakespeare in this play (paradoxically, she cuts a fuller comic figure in the histories), so Anita Dobson gets a slightly raw deal, but you wouldn’t think it to watch her assured performance. And the pathologically jealous Frank Ford is exactly the kind of exaggeratedly vexed character at which John Ramm excels. Even Paddy Cunneen’s score throbs with an English woodwind eccentricity.

Yet, having assembled such a fine comic crew, Breen keeps stalling matters. He hobbles the pace by cutting the final-act masque only slightly and leaving the tedious Latin-grammar scene wholly in place. He also falls prey to the modish taste for pointing up the darker, uncomfortable elements of Shakespeare’s comic resolutions, a move both rash and difficult with a piece as throwaway as Merry Wives. I can understand his desire to use a full palette, but in the event – especially at either end of the canvas – the colours keep running together into beige.

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