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The Merry Wives of Windsor

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The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare, was directed by Rebecca Dallaway, with the assistance of Hannah Tomlinson, and was performed at Dulwich Picture Gallery Gardens, 9th/10th July, and Dulwich Park, 16th/17th July 2016.

(Also performed in 1994)

Cast and Crew

Director  – Rebecca Dallaway
Assistant Director – Hannah Tomlinson

Falstaff  – Ian Jones
Master Ford – Clive Manning
Master Page – Paul Sykes
Mistress Ford – Gill Daly
Mistress Page – Louise Norman
Anne Page – Michelle Cathcart
Sir Hugh Evans – Hugh Blake-James 
Caius – Dave Russell-Smith 
Fenton – Tom Bucher 
Slender – Richard Denham 
Shallow – Stefan Nowak 
Mistress Quickly – Alex Curran 
Nym – Michael Marsden 
Pistol – Roger Orr 
Host – Katrina Rublowsky 
Simple/John – Andrew Cunningham 
Robin – Emily Lamm
Joan Rugby – Tiffany Manning

Review by Bill Bailey

I could not imagine a more perfect setting for an outdoor Shakespeare production than the American Garden at Dulwich Park, the location for the second weekend performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Dulwich Picture Gallery Gardens is also a fine setting but more subject to noise from cars and planes. The weather was lovely and one was transported effortlessly to Windsor and its environs in Shakespeare's day.

The play is, unusually, almost all in prose and is more of a farce than a comedy. The director, Rebecca Dallaway, wrote a helpful plot summary in the programme. She set the play in the 50's (1956 to be precise) and the period worked well and the costumes were excellent - Falstaff actually looked rather smart for a drunken old reprobate.

Rebecca introduced the play with songs from the period accompanied by the guitar and the music continued during the interval. I thought this worked well and was in keeping with the mood of the play. Ian Jones with a fine beard looked splendid as Falstaff and successfully conveyed his devious and evil designs on Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. If anything, he perhaps slightly underplayed the part - better than hamming it up too much - and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance.

Gill Daly and Louise Norman as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, respectively, were both excellent, fully exploiting the comedy of their roles and situations.

Clive Manning as Master Ford was suitably outraged and angry when he learns of Falstaff's intentions and amusing when disguised as Master Brook on his visits to Falstaff. Master Page, played by Paul Sykes, seemed more concerned to marry off his daughter Anne to the rich but dim Slender, very well played by Richard Denham in his first performance with the Dulwich Players. Paul, as always, gave an entirely convincing performance.

The play really descends into farce with the entrance of Frenchman Dr Caius, hilariously played by Dave Russell-Smith in some fairly outrageous costumes. Mistress Page would prefer him to Slender as a husband for her daughter, Anne. The beautiful Anne, however, has eyes for neither Slender nor Caius but rather for earnest young Master Fenton who reciprocates her love. It was good to see another newcomer, Michelle Cathcart, as Anne and Tom Bucher returning to the Players after a long gap, having last acted with the Players when he was 13. They made an attractive young couple.

Shakespeare seems to enjoy having a laugh at the expense of the Welsh and he introduces us to Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson. Hugh Blake-James gave a convincing performance and the duel arranged between Evans and Dr Caius provides more farcical possibilities.

Orchestrating much of what goes on is Mistress Quickly, very well played by Alex Curran. She, along with Falstaff and Justice Shallow, appeared in the Henry IV plays as did Nym and Pistol. I thought Stefan Novak gave a beautiful performance as the eighty year old Shallow. Katrina Rublowsky was a suitably rumbustious Host of the Garter Inn.

Falstaff, of course, gets his comeuppance both in the basket stuffed with dirty laundry and dropped in the river, and in the final scene in Windsor Woods where he is taunted by fairies and burnt with candles. This final scene was beautifully done in the form of a dance.

Sometimes Shakespeare's humorous scenes seem unfunny to modern audiences, but in this production the humour came over very well. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon!

Review by Lydia Dickie

The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s lighter works and it is believed that he wrote it hurriedly to fulfil Queen Elizabeth I’s desire to see more of the character Falstaff, who had featured in the Henry IV plays. It is a domestic comedy about scheming wives, would-be lovers and suitors, mischievous servants and jealous husbands.  Throw in a few sprites and fairies, a haunted wood, boys disguised as brides and a well-used laundry basket and you have one of Shakespeare’s funnier comedies.  

I had the pleasure of watching one of the performances in the picturesque setting of Dulwich Park.  I was expecting a slight sense of déjà vu because nearly 22 years ago I played Mistress Page in the 25th anniversary production directed by Lorraine Greenslade. However, the two productions could not have been more different. In 1994 we performed indoors with a traditional box set and Elizabethan costumes. This current production was set outdoors, in the 1950’s, and gave the female actors a chance to wear some retro clothing! Jane Jones and Denise Biffen created a very authentic 50’s glamorous look.

The play opened with a small group of singers and a guitarist (multi-talented Andrew Cunningham), who set the scene and period of the play with a medley of songs from the 50’s. It's encouraging to see that the Players have a number of good voices amongst the membership.  The play then continued at a cracking pace.  The location in the park was quiet with no traffic to drown the dialogue and it was very easy to hear the actors, when they faced the audience. As soon as an actor turned away, though, with no back wall to bounce the sound, it was much harder to catch each word. Fortunately the acting was so lively and full of fun that a few missed words did not detract from the story telling.

The characterisations were very well defined and there were some hilarious performances from Dave Russell-Smith (Dr Caius) and Hugh Blake-James (Sir Hugh Evans), who in turn managed to mangle the French and the Welsh language. The Merry Wives, Louise Norman (Mistress Ford) and Gill Daly (Mistress Page) played their parts with great relish and bags of humour; they teased and taunted the would-be Lothario, Falstaff.  Ian Jones as Falstaff, sporting some very impressive, home-grown facial extensions, and a very discreet fat suit, was both suave and rambunctious and revelled in playing his Shakespearean hero. There were some delightful comic moments from Richard Denham as a rather effete Slender; Clive Manning as the jealous Mr Ford and his alter ego Mr Brook charged around the gardens like a man possessed; and Alex Curran gave a very confident and polished portrayal of Mistress Quickly using a fine range of facial expressions. I thought the entire cast looked as if they were enjoying every minute of their performance and their enthusiasm was quite palpable to the audience. 

The Elizabethan costume of the 1994 production in made it easier to distinguish between servants, peasants, upper classes and the nobility. It is harder for an audience to differentiate between the various social classes when the setting is more modern. Elizabethan costume also allows the men to dress in very colourful finery, whereas  50’s men’s suits were more subdued in contrast to the bright and elegant ladies' dresses.  I would have liked to have seen Falstaff looking a little more down at heel and not quite so dapper. But these are minor points and did not detract from my enjoyment of the play. Rebecca Dallaway and her assistant Hannah Tomlinson, are to be congratulated on a most enjoyable and joyous production.


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