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Merry Wives of Windsor

Samantha Spiro as Mistress Meg Page and Ian Hughes as Sir Hugh Evans. Photographer and (c) Manuel Harian.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 7 September 2024. Directed by Blanche McIntyre.

Review by Julie Chamberlain

There’s a new man in town, and he’s after a woman with access to money – but it’s going to take more than a flirty letter to get one over on these merry wives.

This production of Shakespeare’s comedy, set in Windsor, makes the most of every double entendre, silly insult and dodgy foreign accent, with some fine physical acting, to create a hugely fun evening.

The play is staged in modern costume, with the servants in sport shirts and baseball caps, and the upper classes in golfing or country squire gear, with Mistresses Ford and Page at one point donning dry robes, after they have carried their Waitrose shopping home.

John Dougall as Shallow, Will Johnson as George Page. Photographer and (c) Manuel Harian.

The clever, partly rotating, set moves easily between the home of Mistress Ford, the Garter pub, the workplace of Dr Caius (a physician who in this production is a dentist), and Falstaff’s bedroom. Furniture and actors ascend through a large trap door to good effect.

Falstaff arrives in Windsor short of money and decides to seduce a rich man’s wife to gain access to his fortune – confident in his abilities, despite his age and often-mentioned portly appearance. He writes near-identical love letters to Mistresses Ford and Page, hoping one will bite. What he hadn’t realised was they are friends who soon find out about each other’s letters and plan their revenge. Mrs Ford pretends to fall for his note, and invites him round, whereupon both women appear and pretend the husband is returning; this results in farcical scenes involving hiding Falstaff in a filthy linen basket, and later disguising him as a hated old ‘witch’ to escape, though not without a beating.

John Hodgkinson as Falstaff (lying down) and Richard Goulding as Frank Ford. Photographer and (c) Manuel Harian.

John Hodgkinson is resplendent as Falstaff, entering rooms stomach first, secure in his ability to seduce even when covered in Thames mud, covered by a quick squirt of cologne, and with great comedy gestures.

Both the merry wives, played by Samantha Spiro and Siubhan Harrison, are a delight, bringing to life the close friendship their husbands acknowledge, and showing huge glee in humiliating the foolish Falstaff.

Richard Goulding plays husband Frank Ford, who poses as Mr Brook to pay Falstaff to try to persuade Mrs Ford to stray, as a test; as his attempts to discover his wife in a non-existent tryst are repeatedly frustrated he loses it in a wonderfully-entertaining way.

John Leader as Fenton and Tara Tijani as Anne Page. Photographer and (c) Manuel Harian.

A sub-plot is the attempted wooing of the Pages’ daughter Anne, by the French Dr Caius (Jason Thorpe, who makes the most of Shakespeare’s use of the accent as a comic tool), and the nerdy Slender (Patrick Walshe McBride), while she is in love with a young man her parents disapprove of.

The final humiliation of Falstaff and rival attempts to steal Anne away to marry her come together in a spectacular scene around an old tree in Windsor Forest, where ‘fairies’ terrify and pinch Falstaff, who is wearing deer horns, in a new excuse for more rude jokes. Most of the cast playing the fairies in shiny green masks gyrate around him, before the resolution of the marriage plot.

Samantha Spiro (Mistress Meg Page), John Hodgkinson (Sir John Falstaff), Siubhan Harrison (Mistress Alice Ford). Photographer and (c) Manuel Harian.

A few of the modern additions jar, and do not seem necessary, but overall it is a superb, laughter filled production.

For tickets for this show see:


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