That 'there's nothing new in show business' is well demonstrated in Christopher Luscombe's new production on Bankside.
One of Shakespeare's most accessible comedies, it has references to knife crime, binge drinking, the suspicion of strangers from overseas, and the dangers of eating too much butter.
The sparkling eponymous Wives take on the task of unmasking the randy old knight Falstaff (played saucily by Christopher Benjamin). Mistress Quickly aids and abets Meg Page (Serena Evans) and Alice Ford (Sarah Woodward) to delight in their double act of outwitting Falstaff and proving their (undeserved) fidelity to their jealous husbands. Of these, Frank Ford (Andrew Havill), adopting a blond wig as a disguise, has clear overtones of paranoid John Cleese and Fawlty Towers to remind us that this play is really the first sit com. Meanwhile his wife adopts Miranda Richardson's imperious tones in Blackadder, perhaps to point out that the first Elizabeth may well have commanded Shakespeare to write a play about Falstaff.
The Windsor location is very important: there are frequent references to the Knights of the Garter and attendant ceremonies. The action partly takes place in the galleried Garter Inn and Falstaff is ignominiously dunked in the Thames at nearby Datchet. The hilarious climax is at midnight when all parties come together at Herne's Oak in Windsor Forest, in a riot of strawmen and masked creatures.
I found the soundtrack element of the music developed by Nigel Hess a bit of a distraction but the new songs, including Falstaff's 'Ding Dong Bell' were fun. The versatile set with galleried half-timbered walls and galleries, wickety bridges and a reversing island bower give plenty of scope for changes of mood and pace. The host of supporting characters build the merriment and good humour of the play.
At last a Globe production which delights as much as in Mark Rylance's time as artistic director.
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