Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool: The theatre is packed but I am alone. I’m watching the Merry Wives by Shakespeare and am enjoying it.
But I’m not sure how to review it. How do you review a Shakespeare play? Hasn’t it all been said and done before? Shouldn’t you know the great man’s body of work? Seen his plays? Be able to compare them? Be fluent and conversational in their interpretation? Shouldn’t I be highly intelligent, erudite and well-read?
Part of me says I’m unqualified to write this review and another, louder, part of me says “Sod it. This is my blog; I make the rules around here. I don’t care if nobody reads this. I’m not claiming to be an expert but I liked the play and want to write about it.”
But how can I write about the Merry Wives? All I need to say is that it was funny, it’s touring Britain and was produced by The New Vic Theatre, Northern Broadsides and Liverpool Playhouse/Everyman. End of story, end of review, see you later…
My Lightbulb Moment
And then it hit me. I got a concept that will lead me into a proper review: this play is like a soap opera. Is this Shakespeare’s soap opera? It felt like I was watching a period TV drama on the stage; I laughed, I related to the characters and I wanted to see more.
But there was no more, and this is where my theory falls down: a soap opera is a drama that keeps repeating itself. This is a one-off. I’m sure Shakespeare could have written soap operas but thank God he didn’t.
The play’s full title is the Merry Wives of Windsor and it was set in fifteenth century England, two hundred years earlier than when Shakespeare was writing. The producers emphasise this time-lag by setting this version of the play in an earlier time frame from our own – the 1920s.
It is the tale of two wives who are propositioned by Falstaff, a larger-than-life character who turns up in several of Shakespeare’s plays.
We first see Falstaff lounging on a chair and surrounded by a bunch of thugs. First impression is that he’s a small-time Mafioso and this is his gang. But it soon becomes clear that he’s a good-natured buffoon, not a criminal, and his main interest is to get free food, wine and women. He looks like a nobleman who has fallen on hard times, is used to having servants around and has attracted the local thugs to act as his retainers. But he soon falls out with the thugs and they tell the husbands that their wives are the target of Falstaff’s lust. This sets the scene for the drama.
The Wives compare the notes that Falstaff has sent them – short love letters, full of absurd flattery – and decide to lead him on and humiliate him. A great comic scenes follow: Falstaff visits one of the wives at home and, just as he starts to charm her, the other wife comes in and says “your husband is coming!” There is a panic and Falstaff is bundled into a huge clothes hamper, carried outside by the servants and dumped into the river. The exercise is repeated the following day and Falstaff is humiliated and chastened in the process.
Both husbands have been informed that their wives are dallying with Falstaff. One of them doesn’t believe it and is quite relaxed. The other one is a jealous type and he gets furious – this justifies all his suspicions – and, in rampaging around the house in search of the seducer, provides much comic relief.
It all ends happily. There is a reconciliation and the suspicious husband’s fury subsides when he realises his wife was just teaching Falstaff a lesson. He promises to stop being jealous. Falstaff is forgiven, the thugs have been transformed into proper servants and they all go on their merry way.
That’s it. End of review.
The most interesting thing about this play is how contemporary it is. If it were renamed and put on TV I’m sure people wouldn’t think it was out of date. This is remarkable considering that the play is set in England over 600 years ago.
What this tells me is that people don’t change. The world today is very different from how it was in Shakespeare’s day; the level of comfort and security that every British citizen has (but doesn’t necessarily appreciate) would be unrecognisable to The Bard.
Shakespeare’s Merry Wives is a reminder that human behaviour hasn’t changed despite all the technological advances that we have seen over the last 200 years. We still have rich and poor (the thugs are poor, the main characters are rich); some people are immoral and most are not; some are eaten up by suspicion and jealousies but most are not. We still love, hate, lust, scrounge, deceive, hope, lie, cheat and steal.
The fundamentals of human nature haven’t changed and probably never will. I’ve just had another lightbulb moment. I’ve just realised something that every theatre critic probably knew years ago – this is what makes Shakespeare so enduringly popular: He writes about human nature.
Photo from the Merry Wives at Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre