Seeing Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival over the last few years, we’ve gotten so used to pleasant surprises that we’ve come to expect them. We’re talking here about plays that didn’t seem like much when we read them, but that came wonderfully rich and alive on stage – like Troilus and Cressida (2003), The Taming of the Shrew (2008), and A Winter’s Tale (2010).
We counted on the same from this year’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which we’d never seen performed before. True, on the printed page – and we re-read the play just last spring — its situations seemed contrived, its jokes puerile (if we got them at all), and its characters one-dimensional. But we still somehow expected that the magic would come out on stage.
Unfortunately, it just didn’t. We don’t fault either the cast or the director. You couldn’t ask for more, for instance, from the two merry wives themselves, Mrs. Page (played by Laura Condlin) and Mrs. Ford (Lucy Peacock), a pair of past-their-prime housewives who find that they’ve both gotten indecent propositions from Sir John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies). On stage Ms. Condlin and Ms. Peacock giggle and carry on energetically at their own schemes for teaching the lecherous knight a lesson. Unfortunately, the audience – at least at the performance we attended – mostly didn’t laugh along. The material just isn’t that funny.
In fact, our audience didn’t really stir until Tom Rooney, playing Master Ford, came on stage. Here, at least, was a bit of magic. Failing to realize that his wife is merely making sport of the fat knight, Master Ford believes he is being cuckolded. The character seems dull and lifeless on the printed page, but Rooney’s Ford is vital and compelling. Rooney makes far more out of the part that we imagined possible.
Nor does the seriously talented Geraint Wyn Davies fail to get all there is out of the role of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, although it wasn’t really until the second half of the play that our audience began responding to Falstaff with any regularity or enthusiasm. We got a charge out of Falstaff’s padded fat costume — in fact, we liked all the period costumes and the set for the interior of the Garter Inn. (We were grateful that director Frank Galati didn’t transpose the play to, say, Brooklyn in the 1950s.)
Considering the individual performances and the brisk direction, we didn’t feel we wasted our money on The Merry Wives of Windsor. But we left thinking that this play would languish in obscurity, unperformed, if it were attributed to a Elizabethan playwright other than Shakespeare. It just isn’t that good; even this excellent Stratford Festival cast couldn’t make us think it was. There aren’t any clever turns of phrases that you’d want to tuck away for future use, there aren’t any speeches that make you sit back, smile, and appreciate the poetry, and there aren’t any genuinely memorable characters. No other Shakespeare play is so deficient. We left feeling that we would have “had to be there” — in 1599 — to find the play funny.
In the program notes, Robert Blacker writes that The Merry Wives of Windsor is “underrated by scholars but not by audiences.” We grant his first point, but doubt his second.