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The Merry Wives of Windsor (New Theatre) – theatre review

If Shakespeare had the vision of Nostradamus, he may well have foreseen The Merry Wives of Windsor being set in a 1980s Australian backyard. Nonetheless, director Viktor Kalka has made the geographic transition and it is an interesting concept, to say the least. Inspired by “The Bard’s” intention to make the play contemporaneous, Kalka creates one set, complete with bungalow, clothesline, garden setting and paling fence. Characters are true to name and dialogue, but costumes and behaviour are localised. To entrench a contemporary feel, 1980s popular music assists in scene changes.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a light-hearted look at the ageless themes of love, jealousy and envy. There are social climbers, hangers-on and schemers, each plotting to find a way to get rich quickly without wasting time on such things as hard work. And there are also those with a sincere heart seeking a life partner based on real love. The story centres around Sir John Falstaff (Cheryl Ward), a jolly, rotund gentleman whose fortune has taken a battering. To improve his standing, he concocts an idea to seduce the wives of two leading businessmen, Messrs Page (Allan Hough) and Ford (Rob Ferguson).

Photos by Bob Seary

While this may be a great idea in theory, the scheme falters when he sends love letters to Mistress Page (Suzann James) and Mistress Ford (Roslyn Hicks), declaring his admiration and desire. Naturally, the two ladies share their letters and are aghast to find that the wording in each is identical. Madame’s Page and Ford then conspire to ridicule Sir John, initially by playing along with his advances in order to entrap him for a grand public humiliation.

As the ladies go about their plan, a sub-story plays along concurrently. The Pages’ daughter Anne (Jessie Lancaster) has three suitors. The one she loves is Fenton (Olivia Xegas), but he does not have her parents’ approval. Her father encourages Slender (Harry Winsome) and her mother prefers the French doctor Caius (Rob Thompson). There are other players, including Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans (Dwayne Lawler), each supporting their preferred love-match.

One can see where this story is going, so the journey to the conclusion is full of crazy scenes, exaggerated dialogue and humorous exchanges. The French and Welsh characters have overly broad accents and gestures. Dr Caius has an obvious 1980s camp persona which, while amusing, seems out of place for where he finds himself. On the other hand, clergyman Evans, in a moment of prayerful self-searching, begins to recite Tom Jones’ hit “It’s not Unusual”, an effective, modern addition to Shakespeare’s script.

The heavy French and Welsh accents are sometimes hard to decipher and the 2 hours 45 minutes duration asks much of the audience. Still, overall, the play is entertaining and well-directed, and the actors give it their all. The Merry Wives of Windsor is playing at the New Theatre until 21 May 2022.

Paul Kiely
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre

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