Review: The Merry Wives at York Theatre Royal

Mistress Ford (Becky Hindley) doesn't quite share Falstaff's (Barrie Rutter) lust for life. Photograph: Nobby Clark/Northern Broadsides
18 May 2016 @ 2.14 pm
| Entertainment

The Merry Wives by Northern Broadsides

York Theatre Royal

May 17-21

£10-£29

Info and tickets

Northern Broadsides’ latest production sounds so good in a Yorkshire accent you almost wonder why Shakespeare didn’t write it that way himself.

Artistic director Barrie Rutter has trimmed ‘Windsor’ from the title, and set the action firmly up here.

It’s appropriate that he’s also chosen to set it in the 1920s, as the story is a close cousin to all those classic farces, where people are forever falling out of cupboards, being mistaken for someone else or strolling into a room and asking “Anyone for tennis?”.

Indeed, a lot of vintage sports equipment makes an appearance – tennis rackets in wooden presses, lacrosse sticks, golf clubs, snooker cues – although they’re not always used for their intended purpose.

Larger than life - Barrie Rutter fills the big shoes (and trousers) of Falstaff. Photograph: Nobby Clark/Northern Broadsides
Larger than life – Barrie Rutter fills the big shoes (and trousers) of Falstaff. Photograph: Nobby Clark/Northern Broadsides

The action in this joint production with the New Vic Theatre revolves around Sir John Falstaff, last seen as companion to the young Henry V in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. He’s physically enormous, prey to all kinds of appetites and not given to stinting himself in any of them.

Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of Elizabeth I, who wished to see Falstaff in love. Actually, we never really encounter him in love. In lust, in trouble and, at one point, in the river, but never in love.

The story is a complex combination of determined parents and wilful children, jealous husbands and hopeful adulterers, scheming women and dim servants. The humour comes less from the events, and more from the strong characters.

Funny and filthy

The acting is incredibly physical, at times almost like a pantomime. Combined with the emphatic, naturalistic diction and fast pace, this is a production which grabs you by the lapels and drags you along with it.

It’s not reverential, scholarly Shakespeare, where we titter politely at the lines we know are supposed to be funny. This is genuine Shakespeare, full of filthy double entendres and characters who can make you laugh with a single, well-chosen word.

In addition to directing the play, and being the founder and artistic director of Northern Broadsides, Barrie Rutter excels as the scheming, self-deluding, rather gullible Falstaff.

He really moves as a heavyweight man would, struggling to sit down and stand up, and displays exceptional comic timing.

Helen Sheals as Mistress Quickly gets straight to the point. Photograph: Nobby Clark/Northern Broadsides
Helen Sheals as Mistress Quickly gets straight to the point. Photograph: Nobby Clark/Northern Broadsides
The double act of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson), Falstaff’s tormentors, is an absolute joy to watch. You can well believe these two have been friends for years, and their hysterical laughter rings impressively true.

Accessibility

To find out how accessible York Theatre Royal is for people with a disability, go to our Brideshead Revisited review here

Abraham Slender (Jos Vantyler), in his ghastly, gaudy costume, is a great audience favourite with his gormless delivery, mooning after the girl he never gets. And Al Bollands, as his servant Peter Simple, flawlessly channels Baldrick.

Helen Sheals excels as Mistress Quickly, with her malapropisms and quick movements. And it’s not often you see a proper, traditional wraparound pinny in Shakespeare.

It really is unfair to pick out particular performances as the entire cast is excellent. This is a thoroughly entertaining evening, well worth the price of the ticket.

But be warned – you may never look at Shakespeare in the same way again.