November 7th, 2010

La Loge

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Back to Pace University Friday night, where The Globe Theatre is bringing their 2008 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor to New York.

Merry Wives is an odd play.  Last year, we read it aloud at our traditional Twelfth Night play-reading, and finally gave up on it not long after the buck-basket scene.  Shakespearean prose is a lot harder for amateurs to read than Shakespearean poetry, and even Our Learned Shakespearean Friend and I, who have more or less committed Shakespeare's Bawdy to memory, couldn't follow some of the more obscure jokes and puns on the fly. Also, when you're reading aloud, you (or at least I) can't help noticing that 16th century humor is pretty vicious.  It's not just Merry Wives.  Malvolio gets thrown into a lightless prison, Kate is starved, deprived of sleep, and humiliated, and servants and slaves are beaten with sticks pretty much every time they open their mouths, all in the name of good fun.  The excuse, of course, is that they deserve what they get because they have already made themselves ridiculous by stepping out of their proper social roles.  The humiliation is just society's way of bringing them back into line.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of the comedy of humiliation, even in Shakespeare's hands (paradoxically, I love Twelfth Night, but what's life without a little paradox?).  So a whole play that revolves around the ritual humiliation of a man who is already fat, arthritic, alcoholic, impoverished, and not as young as he used to be, is more likely to have me gritting my teeth than falling out of my chair with helpless laughter.

Yet, that is what I was essentially doing as Falstaff folded himself compactly into the buck basket to be hauled away, with considerable effort, by two struggling servants in livery, and even when Master Ford began to beat Falstaff (in the person of the Old Lady of Brentford) with a poker.

The fact is, nothing dates faster or more completely than comedy.  One age's dirty joke or comic cruelty is another's bewildered shrug or personal trigger. The only way to make Merry Wives funny to a modern audience is to play it as broadly as possible, with gestures to underline the obscure sexual slang and double entendres, and to defuse the cruelty with a measure of good nature.  As the Globe company is nothing if not brilliant at physical comedy, double-takes, stage business, funny walks, slow burns, and, yes, good nature, this production was very funny indeed.  I loved Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who very clearly had grown up together and played pranks together and had seen each other through fair times and foul.  They have a little clapping secret handshake thing they do when they come up with the Herne plot that is a slightly anachronistic but perfect expression of the length of their relationship and their satisfaction at their own cleverness.  They're at the emotional center of the play, not Falstaff, who Christopher Benjamin plays as a guy who has been around the block so many times he's not paying attention to the traffic signals any more.  This Falstaff rushes to meet humiliation and is reasonably philosophical about meeting it, which makes him (to me, anyway) a lot funnier and less pathetic than he is on the page.

As always with the Globe productions, the music is authentic (except for the settings of the songs, which I found poppy and saccherine, even played on sackbuts and rebecs) the set inventive and spare, and the costumes gorgeous.  I loved Mistress Ford's embroidered stomacher almost as much as I loved Mistress Page's green velvet overgown--although, for sheer magnificence, nothing could outdo Master Shallow's lime green and scarlet paned hose and doublet, with little slashed shoes to match.  I'd give a lot for those shoes.

For those of you in or near New York, it ends November 7 (which is tonight, Duh).  Even with a glowing review from The New York Times, the house wasn't full, so discount tickets should be easy to get.

I'm loving this Pace Shakespeare season.  Next up is Merchant of Venice, with F. Murray Abraham.  I can't wait.

Edited to correct a grammatical glitch, acknowledge that I don't actually know what the date is, and fix a factual betise--which I did actually know better than to commit, but temporarily forgot.  *sigh*