The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Wives And Lovers

Another entry in my 2006 BBC Shakespeare-watch. As a little point of information, I’d like to say in advance that this play has risen in my estimation since, as a result of seeing the Globe production starring Christopher Benjamin in the starring role. It’s available on DVD, you should all buy it.

Also Stuart Burns has brought to my attention that some of these productions can be viewed for free on YouTube. Of the plays already reviewed, you can watch Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice.


You may have noticed this Shakespeare watch has taken a bit longer than most. This is because of various things. Mainly, I've been a bit blah-ed by the bard and have tried to go and get some rest. Secondly, ITV 4 repeat old A Bit Of A Do and Is It Legal?s on Saturdays, so I've been watching those instead - the other day there was an episode with not only the eponymous Kate Isitt but Ben Miles as well. And thirdly, there was some blockage in the write-up peristalsis because, The Merry Wives Of Windsor is really quite shit.

The main problem is what it is. It's a spin-off adventure for Falstaff (if it were done today, it would be available on your mobile as a Bardisode). We don't know whose idea it was to give Falstaff a spin-off adventure, but popular legend and The Executioners has it that it was Elisabeth I's idea. As such, it is rather a one-joke play, and unfortunately that one-joke isn't in this play, it's in Henry IV Part 1. We are presented with Falstaff as a character we should already find funny, but, removed from his context, he just appears a caricature of his former self. Not a real person, but a 2-dimensional cartoon. I've been racking my brains to come up with a modern analogy; the best I can come up with to say that The Merry Wives Of Windsor is rather like that Coronation Street spin-off video where Jack and Vera go to Las Vegas, and everything is rather contrived, where people fall into swimming pools, where the humour is cheap, corny and tongue-in-cheek, and where the principals are, if not completely out of character, then at the very least reduced to shallow stereotypes. What a load of rubbish that was. I wonder what happened to the guy who wrote it.

Jim Smith has this very detailed theory that Shakespeare's history plays are closely analogous to the Star Wars films. It makes a surprising amount of sense. But if that is the case, then that makes The Merry Wives of Windsor the The Star Wars Holiday Special.

But it is the presumption that we should already love Falstaff, and find everything he does and says inherently hilarious, that is my main problem with this play. Because, whilst he was very funny in Henry IV Part 1, where he was the comic relief in an otherwise straight drama, he isn't here. This play feels crude by comparison (in all senses of the word) - basic, unplanned and rushed. In places it's even more incoherent as Love's Labour’s Lost; that annoying, circuitous habit of characters to spend five minutes talking about something before they get round to mentioning precisely whatever it is that they are talking about. I know that happens in all the plays, but it seems unusually prevalent here - particularly in the tortuous first act.

Apparently it only took the Shakester a couple of weeks to write; and whilst the fact that he came up with something this good in that time displays a kind of mind-boggling genius, it nevertheless shows, because this really ain't no Much Ado About Nothing. The plot is random and inconsequential, the comedy is obvious, the characterisation is simplistic... and it's all on one level, there's no up or down. Spear-i-o's other comedies have, y'know, emotional range - they have moments of heartbreak and loss and pathos, bathos, and various other Greek islands I could mention if I had a map of the Aegean about my person. Whereas this is just a succession of people wandering on and off the stage in a variety of amusingly large hats.

It's all very light comedy, if rather risqué. It's kind of like a Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special, a comedy for grandmas who like their comedy naughty but inoffensive.

The second problem I faced with this play was the BBC production. It seems to epitomise all that is bad about Shakespearean acting. Everyone puts on an absurd accent. Everyone puts on a big beard. Everyone puts on a amusingly large hat. Lines are rattled out staccato, where any rhythm or fluidity in the dialogue is lost in the hurry to get on with the next bit of physical business the actors have thrown in. And, oh sweet Jesus on a moonbeam, I loathe physical business. It's all double-takes, sputtering, people leaving the room through the wrong door, women adjusting their vast bosoms, people falling backwards into swimming pools - you've all seen Season 22, you know what I mean. And then there's the hysterical laughter after one of the characters makes a joke. Christ on a Segway, make it stop!

Richard Griffiths is Falstaff. Surprisingly, he misfires in a role that should be tailor-made. For Mark Benton. The problem is that Richard Griffiths is a good, believable actor, but to play Falstaff you need to be able to ham badly whilst remaining likeable. The guy playing Bardolph is excruciatingly shit. The guy playing Doctor Caius has the most outrageously poor French accent outside of Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Ben Kingsley, as Mr Ford, is abject. He's supposed to be a rather idiotic husband, jealous and paranoid about his wife's infidelities, and is, possibly, the only character in the play which could be approached with any degree of seriousness. But Ben is playing the part across the whole three octaves, whinnying and barking and eye-rolling and amusingly-large-hat-clutching and...

What is it with hat-clutching? Have you ever seen anyone ever take off a hat and wring it with a sort of rotating motion in their hands to indicate nerves? No. It's just something that actors do. Like slapping things and staring at the telephone after the person at the other end has hung up.

Worst of all, though, is Alan Bennett as Justice Shallow. My heart sank each time this old f*cker appeared. With his big beard. His amusingly large hat. His glasses. And Alan Bennett doing 'old man' acting. Makes you appreciate the 'old man' acting of Clive Dunn and David Jason, because Alan gets it all wrong. He adopts a sort of high-pitched whine and dodders and totters and giggles about the place like Hartnell on Prozac. I realise the character is supposed to be an old fool, but he shouldn't make you want to put your shoe through the telly each time he turns up.

And what is it with the accents, anyway? This play is set in Windsor. Not Devon, as half the cast seem to think. And not Norfolk, as the other half of the cast seem to think. Windsor. They talk proper London in Windsor, not bumpkinny-wumpkinny-yokel-oo-ar-oo-ar-ave-oo-seen-moi-traaaactor.

Everyone in the cast is bad, even Prunella Scales, who can do this sort of stuff in her sleep. But whilst the blame for one actor being awful can be laid at the feet of the actor, for an entire cast to be bad is the fault of the director. For some reason - some insane reason - he's got everyone to play it in that absurd thigh-slappy mannered self-congratulatory mock-laughter rumpitty-tumpitty style that is usually only reserved for productions mounted solely for the purpose of bewildering Japanese tourists.

And there are too many bloody characters. None of them are bad, but none of them are likeable. Falstaff, who should be a sympathetic character, is basically treated like shit throughout the play - and hence the humour arises - but whilst our sympathies don't lie with Falstaff, they certainly don't lie with the so-called Merry Wives who are inflicting all these humiliations upon him, nor with their moronic, self-important husbands or any of the other assorted yokels, quacks, serving-boys, maids, bumpkins, boyos, frogs and people in smocks with large straw hats who populate this excuse for a play. Everyone’s been hit with the idiot stick, and everyone deserves a good slapping.

Okay. What happens. To begin with, we have Justice Shallow (f*ck OFF, Alan Bennett), his cousin Slender (a simpleton) and Sir Hugh Evans (a Welsh vicar). The Welshman has a silly accent and mangles the English language, of course. They stand around wringing their hats about how they hope they don't bump into that Sir John Falstaff. And then who should turn up, but...

It's kind of like in Some Mother's Do Ave' Em - after a while, Frank Spencer's reputation for being irritating began to precede him, so rather than him winding up the fellow at the dole office, they would be popping their tranquilisers even before he walked into the room. Always annoyed me that did. It was usually the bloke out of The Seeds of Doom, maybe there was a crossover episode where Frank applied for a job at the World Ecology Bureau, I don't know.

Observation: The words 'cozen' and 'cousin' are pronounced the same. In a play involving cousins cozening, this is potentially confusing.

Anyway, there are two plots (such as they are), an A plot and a B plot.

'A' plot. Falstaff is skint, and decides on a plan to get some money. He will woo two of the eponymous Merry Wives, and get some of their husband's money.

Note: Terry Nation has it wrong. This play isn't about Falstaff in love. Falstaff is never, at any point, in love with anyone. He's only acting out of greed and self-interest. His gentleman's dangle is resolutely Mull of Kintyre throughout.

Falstaff woos Mistress Ford and Mistress Page by sending them both love notes. By sending them both the same love notes. Falstaff has done this scam so many times before he's got the letters prepared and all he needs to do is insert the Girl's Name Here. I had a similar technique during my REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED.

The two Mistresses literally compare notes and realise that Falstaff has been wooing them for their money and decide on a process of retribution against Falstaff. First up, they get Falstaff to come to Mistress Page's house for a bunk-up - only to tell him that her husband’s on the way. Falstaff hides in the linen basket, and is smuggled out of the house - only to be unceremoniously thrown into the Thames.

Somewhere around here, in a moment of confused plotting, Falstaff's plan changes - he is visited by a man called Mr Brook, who fancies Mistress Page and wants to shag her, and who is willing to pay Falstaff to woo her on his behalf. Falstaff agrees to this play, unaware that Mr Brook is, in fact, Mr Page in disguise. Mr Page has got wind of the fact that Falstaff has been trying it on with his wife, and is paranoid about his wife being unfaithful. Not, it has to be said, because he loves her to any great degree, but because he is paranoid about the humiliation of being cuckolded. A cuckold, it seems, is made to wear big horns to look stupid, for no readily apparent reason.

Anyway, so Falstaff is wooing Mistress Page (now on behalf of Mr Brook, aka Mr Page) and Mistress Ford. Mistress Page invites him round her house again for nooky bare, and Falstaff, one bitten, twice bitten, agrees to attend. Once again her husband turns up, and this time Falstaff is forced to disguise himself as Mother Pratt, Mistress Page's Aunt of Brentford, fortune-teller, all-round fat lady and alleged witch. Mr Page isn't keen on said aunt, and chases her out of the house whilst hitting her (i.e. Falstaff) with a big stick.

After this, Mistresses Ford and Page tell Mr Page about their plan, they all have a good laugh at Falstaff's expense, and then cook up a third way to humiliate him. Apparently there is some sort of Windsor ritual involving Herne the Hunter - what if Falstaff were to dress as Herne the Hunter, and meet Mistress Page? No, I didn't understand this bit either. The upshot of it is that Falstaff ends up wearing big antlers (like a big fat cuckold, do you see?) and goes to meet Mistress Page.

He arrives under cover of moonlight, and Mistress Page turns up, saying she wants to run away with him. Then Mistress Ford turns up as well, and says she wants to run away with him too. “Bloody hell”, proclaims Falstaff, “A three-way! Obviously I've seen videos and stuff on the internet, but now I'm actually in with a bloody chance of getting to some real-life three-in-a-bed action! FAN-F*CKING-TASTIC!”

Or, as Shakespeare puts it, "LET THE SKY RAIN POTATOES!"

To his alarm, Falstaff is then surrounded by the kids of the village dressed as fairies. Rather like a cheap knock-off of Bottom, Falstaff believes he has been spirited into fairyland for punishment for his lecherous sins - in this case, the punishment being pinched all over.

Yes, it really is that twee. Kids dressed as fairies giving Falstaff a good old pinching.

After this, Mistresses Ford and Page come clean, and their husbands decide, if not to forgive Falstaff for attempting to steal away their wives, to at least have a good laugh about it over lunch. Falstaff is a lunchophile and agrees, even after he has been locked in a basket with dirty clothes, thrown in a river, beaten up black, blue and all the colours of the rainbow, traumatised and pinched all over.

You see, it's this relentless campaign of violence against Falstaff that irks. He's not a bad guy, he hasn't done anything that bad... but we’re supposed to laugh as the Merry Wives of Windsor connive to inflict pain and rain down humiliation upon him. Merry Wives? Sadists more like.

The B plot is little better, and feels like something left over from another play, or something half-finished pulled out of a bottom draw. It concerns Anne Page, Mistress Page's daughter. Anne's a bit of a looker, but even better than that her dad is loaded, and so she has three men trying to get into her silken breeches. Firstly, there's Slender, the simpleton. Then there's Dr Caius, the pompous Frenchman with the ludicrous accent. And finally there's Fenton, a hound last spotted racing across Richmond park. I’m joking. He’s a young, pleasant chap, who is not wealthy but who is loved dearly by Anne.

So these three chaps are rivals for Anne's affection. Dr Caius and Slender almost have a fight over her, but don't - not sure why, I drifted a bit during this scene, I had my hands covering my eyes to avoid seeing Alan Bennett's 'performance' so missed most of it.

Anyway, what eventually happens is that Mr Page favours Slender, and arranges for Anne to marry him. Anne will wear white at the masque (the same one where Falstaff wears antlers), so Slender will know who she is, and, after they've exchanged passwords, he will take her away to Eton and marry her.

Mistress Page gets wind of this plan. She favours Dr Caius, and arranges for Anne to marry him. Anne will wear green at the masque, so Dr Caius will know who she is, and he will also take her away and marry her.

Fenton hatches a cunning plan. He will get two serving boys to dress up as girls, one in white, one in green, and they will attend the masque, whilst he takes Anne and marries her. Immediately.

The plan works. Slender runs off with the 'girl' in white at the dance, Dr Caius runs off with the 'girl' in green, Fenton runs off with Anne and they get married.

Cue: the final scene, and Slender turns up, having accidentally almost got married to a boy. "If I had been married to him, for all he was in woman's apparel, I would not have had him." Slender is not a gay. He was never confused.

Enter Dr Caius, who did accidentally marry the boy he was with. "I ha' married a garcon! A boy! Un paysan, by gar, a boy! It is not Anne Page!". Funny stuff but too little, too late.

And then Fenton and Anne enter, happily married. Anne's parents realise she has ended up with a bloke who loves her and it's too late to do anything about it now, and so they give the couple their blessing.

So there you go. To be fair, I think it isn't that bad a play, I think maybe the BBC production may have soured it for me. It certainly picks up in the last couple of acts; it's just that it’s awfully slow to get going, and there’s far too much exposition. There are, as I said earlier, too many characters as well - there's Bardolph, who has no reason to be in this play at all, and William Page, and Shallow, and Sir Hugh Evans, Robin, Simple, Rugby, Mistress Quickly...

...I mean, these are all funny characters in their way - but that is the problem because they are all grotesques, there is absolutely no-one in this play who can act as the straight man and anchor the humour into any sort of cohesive reality. William Page, the 8 year old who accidentally says rude words when he is trying to speak latin. Sir Hugh Evans, who speaks a mangled sort of English due to being Welsh. Peter Simple, the idiot servant - played here very well by the fantastic Ron Cook. And Mistress Quickly is a sort of Nurse from Romeo & Juliet type of woman, slightly dotty, slightly dirty-minded, and Elizabeth Spriggs does a very good job there. But on the other hand you have Ben Kingsley and Alan JUST F*CKING GO AWAY NOW Bennett.

But all in all, a disappointment, and, if not a total misfire, then still a bit off-target. I have a feeling the play on the page is better than Love's Labour’s Lost but this production certainly isn't; it is now officially my least pukka Shakespeare comedy (and I don't think As You Like It is going to beat it for that honour). It's just overlong, with unsympathetic characters victimising the only potentially sympathetic character, and just far too many 'Falstaff is so fat...' jokes. Of the three hours of this play, at least one hour is taken up with jokes about how fat Falstaff is. It's just one of those plays - unlike Much Ado About Nothing - where a director needs to come in, shake the script down, trim the waffle and sort the whole thing out.

Which didn't happen here. Which is why it's taken me over a month to watch this play all the way through.

Let the sky rain potatoes!

Next up: Henry IV Part Two

1 comment:

  1. I played Ford last year. I studiously avoided watching the BBC version until afterwards. When I did, I was perturbed to discover that the "silly voice" I had used for Brook (a kind of adenoidal trainspotter from Milton Keynes) was nearly identical to the one Kingsley used for HIS ENTIRE PERFORMANCE.