Windsor, England, and the ‘fat knight’ Sir John Falstaff is down on his luck. But not to worry. Convinced that the ‘merry wives’, Mistresses Page and Ford, have succumbed to his charms, Falstaff is determined to seduce them both – gaining the keys to their husbands’ coffers along the way. Unfortunately for Sir John, he has reckoned without the Wives’ integrity, several humiliating assignations, and a very cramped and extremely smelly laundry basket.
This has to be one of the most enjoyable Shakespeare productions I’ve seen, and it’s certainly one that’s had me doubled up with laughter. Originally performed in 2008 it was revived and went on tour in 2010, before being recorded live at the Globe for DVD. Although live performances aren’t always successful as recordings, this one has transferred well to film, and my only complaint is that sometimes more inclusive shots would have been preferable to the close-ups which obscured parts of the action.
Purists may take issue with the Globe’s editing: the minor character of Bardolph, for example, has been cut, as have a comedy scene centred on Latin and an incomplete sub-plot. Many speeches have been shortened to give them punchier comic timing. But it’s easy to see why the Globe has done this – they’ve worked hard to create a satisfying and comprehensible piece of entertainment, and as such I reckon Shakespeare would probably let them off.
Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward star as the titular wives, playing their parts to the hilt to give us a pair of witty, believable women, honest but not above a ribald joke or two, and certainly not above teaching Sir John Falstaff a lesson. Superbly played by Christopher Benjamin, our troublesome knight's plummy voice and grandfatherly aspect just can’t conceal that he’s an earthy, fat old rogue with an inflated sense of his own sexual attractiveness and a propensity for getting into enormous amorous scrapes. Meanwhile Andrew Havill very nearly steals the show as the Fawlty-esque but not unsympathetic Master Ford, convinced he’s being cuckolded but always thwarted in his downright hilarious, laundry-pervaded attempts to uncover the culprit.
Bright Elizabethan costumes and lively accompanying music played on period instruments add further layers to enjoy. The original play contained only one song, here titled ‘Fie on Sinful Fantasy’, but the Globe have also incorporated three more: ‘My Love is Fair’, based on a poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary George Peele, and ‘Ding Dong Bell’ and the immensely catchy ‘Merrily and Ever Among’, both rooted in Shakespeare’s own words. Again, this is something that might perhaps have the purists grinding their teeth – but the Globe blends each song in seamlessly and pulls it all off with flair.
They don’t forget the message of reconciliation on which the play ends, either, which gives it just that bit more emotional depth. Mind you, even in the midst of that, Shakespeare couldn’t resist a joke, and it’s that wittiness which really sets the tone for this production – overwhelmingly sunny, imbued with a huge spirit of fun, and full of energy and the zest for life which Falstaff himself is famous for. Well worth at least one viewing! The DVD also contains a gallery of cast photos.
You can watch the trailer for the 2010 tour below.