A hard labour of love

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The Independent Culture
THEATRE Merry Wives of Windsor Royal National Theatre The community of Windsor, not Falstaff or the eponymous heroines, is the true protagonist of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Consequently, the most persuasive productions tend to be those which give detailed social substance to this provincial neighbourhood with its newly-rich merchant class, its bourgeois distrust of wily, impoverished aristocracy and its ability to close ranks on the disreputable outsider, Falstaff. David Thacker's 1993 version at Stratford was a disaster, partly on account of its confused, textureless setting, whereas Bill Alexander in the previous decade scored a hit by finding rum equivalents for 1590s Tudor society in the Tudorbethan world of the 1950s.

For his maiden production at the National Theatre, the former artistic director of the RSC, Terry Hands, goes to great pains to create a vivid tapestry of Elizabethan small-town life. Caught at the season of mellow fruitfulness, with laden trees, countryfairs and labourers lolling over their lunch in picturesque cornfields, this Windsor is also regularly overrun by a band of wind instrumentalists and a gaggle of schoolboys who play conker games, chant religious doctrine and intone period nursery rhymes.

The intention with all this outre authenticity is a good one; the trouble is that it starts to obey the law of diminishing returns. Rather than having the feel of reality, Windsor began to remind me of those fake Shaker villages you can visit in the States: you half expect that someone would waylay you and show you how to apply a leech or play Greensleeves on a sackbut.

And yes, I have to admit that I really rather enjoyed it, largely thanks to the engaging cast. One problem with the Alexander updating was that you were never sure whether the title characters were supposed to be satirical cartoons of vulgar 1950s housewives or wise and sympathetic Shakespeare heroines. Warmth and good sense palpably radiating through their giddy, giggling scheming, there is no such difficulty with the wives finely played here by Maureen Beattie and Geraldine Fitzgerald. As the frantically jealous husband Ford, Richard McCabe makes a powerful impact, his manner one of precariously bottled-up apoplexy. He is particularly hilarious at the moment when the character is confronted for the second time with the suspect laundry basket. He gives the receptacle such an insanely thorough search that he ends up covered by it and crawling about the stage like some demented tortoise. Imagine, he delivers the line "Well, he's not here I seek for" with a studied, just-checking casualness wonderfully out of proportion with the manic spectacle he has just created.

Denis Quilley is a rather subdued Falstaff who, after the second chastening set-back, seems to experience an excess of genuine autumnal humility. He's hoodwinked by the Mistress Quickly of Brenda Bruce whose slyly inscrutable pekinese face gives this over-commissioned go-between just the right countenance. The production communicates that it's a labour of love, even if, in its evocation of the setting, it gives the sense of something loved to death.

Box office: 071-928 2252

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