By Aaron Kropf
The Merry Wives of Windsor has often been called Shakespeare’s sitcom, and you could come up with any number of reasons why. For me, Cheers is the TV comedy it most brings to mind – you can just imagine how everyone in that show would respond to Falstaff’s entrance, in the opening scene of Merry Wives, through the doors of the local tavern. He was definitely the Norm of his day.
Falstaff, in fact, is an Elizabethan example of what you could call a spin-off: the fat knight proved so popular when he first appeared in the two parts of Henry IV that Shakespeare gave him a show of his own. In Merry Wives, Falstaff sets out to seduce two married women, in order to get his hands on their money. But they immediately see through him and devise their own schemes to teach him a lesson – thereby setting the comic action in motion.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford – whom director Frank Galati has compared to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz in the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy – are two high-spirited women married to two very different men. One husband, Master Page (deftly portrayed by Stratford favourite Tom McCamus), is trusting and easy-going. The other, Master Ford (hilariously played by Tom Rooney), is given to jealousy and spends much of the show trying to catch his entirely innocent wife in the act of infidelity. Many of the play’s chuckles result from Ford getting in the way of the tricks the women are trying to play on Falstaff.
Memorable capers ensue, from Falstaff’s concealment in a basket of dirty laundry to his desperate attempt to escape Ford’s wrath disguised as an old woman. But give the big guy his due: despite all that the women throw at him, Falstaff keeps coming back for more – why?
In a video interview with Geraint Wyn Davies – who plays the role with the aid of a lot of padding – General Director Antoni Cimolino explores the character of Falstaff and how he’s portrayed in this particular production. Click on this link for the video:
Sometimes we head to the theatre for a laugh or two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor gives us that in spades. Not all the laughter is at Falstaff’s expense, though (there’s also a comical French doctor with an impenetrable accent), and much of it is ultimately forgiving: at the end of the play, everyone seems ready to share a chuckle at their own foibles and failings, even Falstaff himself.
Shakespeare was a master of all forms of play, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor he sounds the depths of humankind through laughter just as profoundly as he does in tragedies that no one would dream of comparing to a sitcom.