Theatre Review: ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at The Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford. Photography by David Hou.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is traditionally viewed as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. Perhaps because it carries neither the weight and depth of a “King Lear,” nor the grandiosity of “The Tempest,” nor the magic of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In its time I imagine it was regarded as something of a chick flick, an Elizabethan popcorn movie that you watched because there was nothing else on. And maybe that was the case historically, but the production of “Windsor” currently playing at the Stratford Festival plays like the ultimate comedic revenge comedy, led by two conniving and duplicitous wives who band together to put a cretin in his place. 

. . .roaringly funny. . .

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” tells the story of Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), a stout and coarse knight who, because he’s short on money, attempts to dually seduce the married Misses Ford (Sophia Walker) and Page (Brigit Wilson) using identical love letters. After comparing the letters and realizing his ruse, these two women (the “Merry Wives”) engage in a series of double-dealing highjinx in order to shame and embarrass the fat knight. Concurrently, three different men are trying to win the hand of Mrs. Page’s daughter, Anne Page (Shruti Kothari). Mistress Page would like her daughter to marry Doctor Caius (Gordon S. Miller), a French physician, whereas the girl’s father would like her to marry Master Slender (Jamie Mac). Anne herself is in love with Master Fenton (Mike Shara). Most noticeably, this production of Windsor is set in the 1950’s.

All too common is the modernizing of Shakespeare, and equally common is the swing-and-miss of the modernized Shakespeare. Be it a 1920’s fedora-clad “Twelfth Night” or a “Hamlet” with machine guns or the Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes “Romeo and Juliet” (which I personally think is an abomination, but does have a cult fanbase), the Bard’s works have been dropped into just about every period of human history imaginable, usually to the detriment of the original. Surprisingly, this doesn’t apply to Stratford’s “Merry Wives,” which is perfectly suited to the “I Love Lucy” backdrop that the audience is presented with. 

This can be chalked up to artistic choices, but also the text itself. “Windsor,” while originally set in a quaint Elizabethan town, has all the trappings of a “Leave it to Beaver” suburbia; the gossiping, the petty feuds, the romance. Comedically, the show’s biggest gags are delightfully sitcom-y, particularly the scenes featuring Falstaff, the wardrobe, and the laundry basket. Even the dueling romance of Anne Page /Doctor Caius/Slender strikes as something that could be plucked out of an episode of “Lucy” or “Beaver.” It’s a fresh, humorous take on a play that’s over 400 years old.

And speaking of humor, Stratford’s production of “Windsor” has plenty of it. With a cast that is top-to-bottom funny, standouts include Doctor Caius, the French physician with an absurdly exaggerated accent and a love for dueling; Mr. Ford (Graham Abbey), the perceived cuckold, who spends the bulk of the show red-faced with rage and spitting with jealousy; and of course, the timeless Falstaff, whose boundless self-deprecation throughout the Shakespeare cannon culminates in the “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Davies is surely one of the best Falstaffs the Canadian stage has ever seen, a master of boorish behavior, a sweaty and insufferable oaf who shuffles around the stage and uses his rotund physique as the butt of ceaseless physical humor. Admittedly the character hasn’t aged particularly well, with the barrage of fat jokes (albeit Elizabethan fat jokes) feeling decidedly cringy and his overall lechery toward women not vibing with the #metoo era. But the audience didn’t seem to mind on the afternoon I was in attendance, as there was nary a moment in which the Festival Theatre wasn’t filled with ringing laughter. 

The Stratford Festival’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is roaringly funny and will be a delight for both fans and non-fans of Shakespeare. It’s playing at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.