Peter Ormerod reviews The Merry Wives of Windsor, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
For Windsor, read Essex. Fiona Laird's winningly gaudy and garish production is replete with estuary accents, pink accoutrements and that particular brand of sass so associated with the unjustly maligned county. At no point does it pretend to be particularly meaningful or profound - rather, it revels in the ridiculousness of the play, purportedly written in a matter of weeks at the behest of Elizabeth I.
But it takes a lot of effort and attention to detail to make something so apparently lightweight work this well. It's a trifle, a fancy, but with some bite, and created with great care and affection. It is astonishingly sophisticated in its lack of sophistication.
The plot is hardly the most elaborate woven by Shakespeare. The priapic, grotesque drunkard Sir John Falstaff has designs upon two women, whose intelligence and guile he routinely underestimates; he is outwitted and eventually humiliated. Other loves and jealousies abound, but they are essentially props for broad, ribald and sometimes unhinged humour, handled here with great skill.
Yes, it sometimes feels like a pantomime. Yes, there are jokes at the expense of a Frenchman that would have been rejected for their unsubtlety by the writers of 'Allo 'Allo. But there is craft to all this: the comedy is impeccable in its timing and movement, the cast having been coached by Toby Park, an expert in clowning. There is the sense that every possible laugh and more besides have been wrung out of the play: even the scene changes sparkle with wit. The show is almost stolen by an apparently sentient golf bag.
David Troughton's performances have been among the highlights of the past couple of years at the RSC and he continues his run of outstanding form here as Falstaff; he proves remarkably good company for so ostensibly unpleasant a figure. Rebecca Lacey, best known for roles on popular primetime TV drama and here making her RSC debut, is an indomitable Mistress Page, while Beth Cordingly is a sharp and savvy Mistress Ford: blonde they may be, dumb they ain't. Every cast member lends distinctive colour and style to the show, while Lez Brotherston's outlandish costumes are devised ingeniously and crafted exquisitely, blending the Elizabethan and the Brentwoodian with great elan. The impressively varied music, too, composed by Laing, accentuates the absurdity.
It's all wonderfully playful and ebullient and quite the summer tonic. Anyone in need of an immensely fun night out need look no further.
* The play runs until September 22. Visit rsc.org.uk to book.