Well, hellooo! to a cosier class of camp

THEATRE Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, Stratford By Paul Taylor

Director Ian Judge and The Merry Wives of Windsorgo together - in theory at least - like Fanny and Johnnie Cradock or FR and Queenie Leavis. With Judge and the major, truly searching plays in the Shakespeare canon, the match is often more a case of Newman and Baddiel. This is no longer as true as it was. His production, now transferred to the Barbican, of that difficult and demanding masterpiece Troilus and Cressida has its undoubted virtues. But with Merry Wives, just opened on the main stage at Stratford, Judge's sensibility - which tends towards cosy as opposed to radical camp - meets less opposition from the text.

There's a wonderful line in this play where Falstaff says, of his ducking in the Thames in the foul linen basket, "You may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking". And certainly my heart began to sink with some alacrity when the lights rose to reveal a cutesie scale model in the background of Windsor Castle, rolling fields and scattered cottages. It is all so reminiscent of the half-timbered Stratford skyline Judge inflicted on his depthless, Tourist Board Twelfth Night. The spectacle of tumbling children who look as if they've come straight off the covers of Elizabethan knitting patterns does not do much to counteract foreboding. Nor does the early knowledge that, with elephantine predictability, Christopher Luscombe has been hired to perform what is virtually his only role - a prissy, fringe-worrying "Shut That Door" type. With the result that, as sure as night follows day, he actually trolls off, at the end, with the young man he has been tricked into marrying. Radical, what? Not if you have even the faintest memory of Cheek By Jowl's all male As You Like It.

Happily, there are performances here that keep forcing the heart to bob back up from its intermittent plummetings. The best of all of them is Guy Henry's hilarious Doctor Caius, the mad, verbally challenged French doctor. Possessed of the thin, distorting-mirror tallness of a Tommy Tune, this young actor also has the kind of tapering face and staring eyes that provide the perfect arena for dotty self-preoccupation - though it makes you smile with pleasure rather than duck below the parapet. Stalking about the proceedings in a haze of half-comprehension, Henry's Caius is an instant comedy classic. Leslie Phillips may not be everybody's idea of Falstaff, but his performance is an intriguing collision between Shakespeare's fat knight and Phillips' stage and screen image as the louche, accident-prone lady-killer with the man-of-the-world saloon-bar drawl. The production makes a good joke of this when, at one point, it has his Falstaff disport himself in what looks like an Elizabethan anticipation of a bounder's silver-buttoned blue blazer.

As Mistress Ford, Susannah York, who is in radiant good looks, valuably allows the occasional shadow of a troubled cloud to float across her merriment. It's a shame that, as her frantically suspicious husband, an anaemic Edward Petherbridge comes over more like a middle-class version of EL Wisty than as a Basil Fawlty avant la lettre. He never drives the fast scenes into the degree of physical delirium that is required.

The male wigs look, fascinatingly, like an exhibition of, and homage to, the hairstyles of some of our leading female singers of yesteryear. Luscombe's is Barbra Streisand c 1965; Henry's is sheer Cleo Laine. What, no Dusty Springfield beehive? What can Dusty have done to the RSC to justify this cruel exclusion?

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