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The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's Globe | reviews, news & interviews

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's Globe

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's Globe

Serious fun returns to the Globe in revival of 2008 staging that retains its spark

Falstaffian frolics: Christopher Benjamin flanked by Serena Evans and Sarah WoodwardJohn Tramper

A genuine, if unanticipated, phenomenon has emerged over time at Shakespeare's Globe, the Bardic-themed playhouse that these days is full more often than not and with good reason, too. Time was when the canon's lesser-known offerings could be counted on to play to not much more than a devoted few. Well, no more. The same summer that has seen so commercially dubious a piece of esoterica as Henry VIII packing them in is now hosting a return engagement of the director Christopher Luscombe's 2008 staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy often derided as cut-rate Shakespeare that sells Sir John Falstaff short.

Such nay-sayers, I am pleased to report, can think again: so middle-class, middlebrow a text will never rank among its writer's greatest works, but in the right hands, my heavens is Merry Wives, um, merry. And, on occasion, more than that, as well.

Running in repertory with Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's highly accomplished Henry IV diptych, Merry Wives allows playgoers a rare opportunity to see Falstaff in duplicate - triplicate if one counts the bifurcated Henrys as two separate plays. And whereas Roger Allam's wonderful "poor Jack" couples roisterousness with a growing sense of dethroned majesty - an aristocrat in exile from his beloved Prince Hal and, eventually, from himself - Christopher Benjamin's scarcely less portly, purple-gartered lech emerges as a sweet-faced scamp whose last laugh is on him. (Watch the finesse with which this physically most fulsome of suitors strains to get down on bended knee and then, once so positioned, has to work treble-time to get back up again.)

As defined by Benjamin's beaming gaze, Merry Wives's Falstaff emerges as a more benign Malvolio in a play that contains countless echoes of Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and, in its emphasis on jealousy, Othello, with Andrew Havill's furious Ford a stiff-backed malcontent all but driven to the edge of madness as events accelerate their mirthful (and sometimes not) spin.

Luscombe's achievement is to honour the darker eddies of a play that resembles the Desperate Housewives of its day, while fully embracing the kinds of sight gags and funny noises coursing through a text as beset with violence, suffering and chaos as it is flat-out good cheer. Audiences will have a high old time choosing their favourite bit of business, whether that be the relationship between William Belchambers's fluty-voiced Slender and a particular undergarment or the delicious double act of Mistresses Page and Ford, as enacted at varying points by Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward to suggest, in vocal terms, Squeak meets Squawk. (Soon after, the ladies engage in a bitch-slap, of all things.)

Little attempt is made to apologise for what's faintly silly about the play. More than once, the much lusted-after Anne Page (Ceri-Lyn Cissone) and her beloved Fenton (Gerard McCarthy) put me in mind of the anodyne lovers of too many a musical, except that both performers seem in on the joke, even if Nigel Hess's score mixes portentousness with whimsy in a manner alien to Andrew Lloyd Webber. The rampant xenophobia is of a buoyant sort, the doctor Caius's Clouseau-esque utterances ("turd" for third and so on) giving way near the end to an imprecation from Falstaff that has about it a vaguely panto feel: "Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy."

The company, largely unchanged from two years ago, look as if they are having a larky time of it, Havill's aggrieved Ford - note his pointed repetition of the word "buck" - relaxing into the visual swing of things courtesy a bewigged "Brook" (the character's invented alter ego) who could well be on loan from Spamalot. Sue Wallace plays Mistress Quickly as a mumsy Mrs Malaprop remarking "erection" when she means "direction", and Michael Garner's Page isn't beyond pausing briefly during proceedings to water the topiary of Janet Bird's clever pop-up set. Who will end up marrying whom, or having the odd dalliance along the way, matters, of course, but so does ensuring one's plants are in bloom. Keeping up appearances is crucial to that rare play set in its author's own place and time, and if that sounds like life as it is lived today, not for the first time, Shakespeare got there first.

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