by Lynn on September 17, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by Jason Hand

Composed by Bertold Carrière

Lyricist, Marion Adler

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Michael Blake

Ben Carlson

David Collins

Sarah Dodd

Farhang Ghajar

Randy Hughson

Micah Kalap

John Kirkpatrick

Shruti Kothari

Daniel Krmpotic

Josue Laboucane

Jamie Mac

Nolan McKee

Gordon S. Miller

Lucy Peacock

Mike Shara

Johnathan Sousa

Michael Spencer-Davis

Sophia Walker

Brigit Wilson

From the ridiculousness of Henry IV Parts I and II at  Shakespeare’s Globe in London, England to the sublime of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

The Story. Sir John Falstaff fancies himself a lady’s man, a charmer among men and someone that everybody wants to know and accommodate. And he always needs money. So he decides to woo two housewives of Windsor at the same time in order to curry their favour etc. He sends Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page the same letter laying on the charm. It was the time before texting, (sexting??) right, so the two wives actually talk to one another about various things and compare their letters and plot to teach Sir John a lesson.

There are other subplots: Mr. and Mrs. Page want to marry their daughter, Anne, to a rich, French doctor, Dr. Caius and she wants to marry for love (imagine that!). And Mr. Ford is quivering with jealousy regarding his wife and thinks she is untrue at every turn. He needs to learn a lesson too. Lots of teaching is going on in that small town.

The Production. Director Antoni Cimolino has set the play in 1950 in a small town that is obviously Stratford, Ont. We know we are in deep “twee” country by the two flower ‘pots’ in the yard—they are in the shape of swans. (A tip of the hat to Stratford, Ont. and their many swans on the Avon River.) I smile at that detail.

Twee is a wonderful English slang. It means perhaps over the top precious, like doilies on furniture. In Julie Fox’s design she has put doilies on doilies in a sense. It’s fall in this small town. There are multi-coloured leaves on the ground in the small yard of Mr. and Mrs. Page’s sweet cottage.

Two men arrive to rake the leaves and cart them away (did they have composting in 1950?). Mr. Page (Michael Blake) is a neighbourly man, gracious, a genial host and good-humoured, except when insisting who his daughter marries. Mr. and Mrs. Page’s house seems to be where the neighbours gather for a good time. Mrs. Page (Brigit Wilson) is a bit more forceful than her husband.

Falstaff (Geraint Wyn-Davis) is a bit of a rogue who believes that women fancy him. In this case he thinks that Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford (Sophia Walker) both fancy him and so, since he always seems to need money, he decides that he will woo both woman by mail at the same time and get some money in the bargain. This is a small town. Both women actually talk to each other and so they know Falstaff’s scheme and plot to get even with him.

It involves tricking him into coming to Mrs. Ford’s house for a tryst and then tricking Falstaff into thinking her jealous husband has come home and he is to hide in a laundry hamper (it was really big) whereupon several burly men hauled the laundry hamper out of the house with great difficulty and then dumped the contents in the river. (I believe their operations at Shouldice Hernia Hospital are next week.)

Geraint Wyn-Davis plays Falstaff with verve, energy (is that the energy of a thinner man in a fat suit or is he playing him as if  he believes that a man that large would be that energetic and quick moving?), and brimming good humour. Wyn-Davis has a wonderful way with the language—it bubbles, froths and gushes out of him as if he is having the time of his life.


He is equally matched by Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page. She is sharp-witted, almost impish and knows how to solve difficult problems. She handles problems with quiet grace. For Mrs. Ford the stakes are higher because the tryst happens at her house. Sophia Walker at Mrs. Ford has a nimble mind and has to do some fast thinking when things go sideways. It’s a lovely performance full of humour but not meanness.

Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford was just on the cusp of ‘too much’ but held back. Abbey plays Mr. Ford as a man who quivers with jealousy and anger. His body-language is quick and jerky as his anger bubbles and rises to the top.

I must confess I could not understand one word of Dr. Caius as played by an over-excited Gordon S. Miller. Miller of course deliberately mangles the French doctor’s pronunciation. His body-language is over the top. We know he is the one Mr. and Mrs. Page want Anne to marry. She wants to marry the man she loves. But Miller takes it so far over the top as to make the character incomprehensible instead of funny. If this is what director Antoni Cimolino wants, I think it back-fired.

Otherwise Cimolino packs his production with sight-gags, visual jokes and even a theatre lesson after Chekhov. We know that if we see a gun in Act I then it has to go off in Act II or III (witness Uncle Vanya). In The Merry Wives of Windsor the same thing applies to chamber pots and cow “patties.” Mr. Ford comes to Falstaff for advice. Falstaff hands him a ‘used’ chamber pot with glee and joy. Mr. Ford takes it tentatively looking away, trying not to smell it. He puts it on the floor. He gently pushes it to the side with his foot. You know in your soul someone will step in it. And it’s Mr. Ford, and he does it with verve and horror. The build-up and execution is delicious. And then there is a bit of extra.

Same thing with the cow ‘patties.’ They are there in a ‘field’ and you know someone will step in them. And they do and that too is accompanied with a bit of an extra effect. It’s slapstick. It’s cheesy. It’s very funny.

One clever scene stands out in so many—kudos to movement director, Valerie Moore. Falstaff is on his back on the bed in Mrs. Ford’s house, ready for his sexual adventure with Mrs. Ford. But then he’s startled, thinking he’s been discovered there by Mr. Ford and has to leave quickly. And he can’t because he’s so big that he can’t easily get up. His arms and legs just naturally flip up because his rear just elevates his limbs. He tries and fails to get up. Mrs. Ford pushes his legs down and then up to give him momentum, until ‘lift-off.’ Hilarious.

Comment. We live in interesting times and so body shaming is looked down upon except it seems with Falstaff. He’s a very portly fellow and his weight has provided a lot of humour. In the play it seems quite reasonable to knit ones eyebrows and question how such a portly man could think himself desirable by two comely women. Part of Falstaff’s folly is that he is so confident about himself. We laugh at his perceptions of himself. How could he think he was desirable? Why not? In its quiet way and considering the times we live it, The Merry Wives of Windsor does ask us to re-think our perceptions and conceptions, after we’ve finished laughing.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: June 1, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 26, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

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1 Patrick Cudmore September 18, 2019 at 8:14 am

I felt the same discomfort. Lovely production, but the fat shaming…