The Merry Wives of Windsor (ASC vs BBC) I

Like everything else they’ve done, I’ve immensely enjoyed the American Shakespeare Center‘s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, playing through the end of November, along with Much Ado About Nothing and Titus Andronicus (more about them later). 1 Henry IV will be added to the rotation in early September, George Villier’s The Rehearsal (apparently a cruel parody of Dryden’s tragedies) in October.

I don’t really ‘get’ plays without seeing them more than once, and I’ve seen the ASC Merry Wives four times so far. However, before writing about the production, I thought I’d better look for something to compare it with — something besides their productions of other plays, I mean. I had never seen or read the play before seeing it here, and still haven’t read any scholarship or general essays on it — didn’t want to prejudice my reaction. I have now read it in the Arden edition with most of the notes, watched the 1982 BBC version (the only one available on DVD), and also watched one of the operatic versions, Salieri’s Falstaff (1799), which I had previously seen at Wolftrap and once on DVD, though not recently. (I’ve also seen Verdi’s Falstaff at the Met and on DVD, though not recently, and won’t have much to say about it here.)

Here are my thought so far, for what they are worth:

Text: Both versions had a few cuts. The ASC omits the subplot about the three German horse-thieves (IV.3 and IV.5), along with some of the scholastic humor, though they include the “Castalian king urinal” (II.3), whatever that means (according to Arden, no one knows). The only cuts I noticed in the BBC version were a couple of jokes in the Latin lesson (IV.1) including (oddly) the one that comes across most clearly to a Latinless audience, the one about “the focative case”, which anyone can hear is a dirty joke even if they’ve never heard of the vocative case in Latin or the anatomical meaning of ‘case’ in Elizabethan English.

Humor: In general, the ASC missed fewer opportunities for jokes. There were 3-4 jokes in the BBC version that I hadn’t caught at ASC, mostly in Dr. Caius’ French accent: he calls Anne Page ‘On Podge’and his rival in love ‘Sir Huge’ and when he calls his servant ‘that knave Rog-by’ he pronounces the second word kuh-nave. I assume it is intentional that his repeated “by gar” sounds almost like ‘bugger’. He also asks for his “green pox” (i.e. box), which is more a Welsh than a French accent, though there are other instances of that in the play.

On the other hand, the BBC production missed at least a dozen opportunities that ASC seized. I don’t want to give too many examples, since I hope some of my readers will come to see the play and be as surprised and delighted by them as I was the first time around, but here are two:

  • The look on the face of Mistress Ford (Sarah Fallon) when she reads in Falstaff’s letter (II.1) “You are not young, no more am I” and again when she overhears her husband’s reaction to the news that Falstaff is wooing his wife, saying to Pistol “Why sir, my wife is not young”.
  • When Ford (John Harrell) says “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck! I warrant you, buck –” (III.1), he kicks the basket hard on each repetition of “buck”. (I hope they arranged some sort of padding for that side of the basket, since Falstaff is in it and barely fits. Perhaps Ford is actually kicking the frame. I’ll have to try sitting on that side of the stage next time I go.)

Sets and Props: The BBC set was of course far fancier, particularly the indoor scenes. I liked the huge timber that bisected Falstaff’s room at waist-height and forced visitors to duck under it. His buck basket was nicer, too, though the clothes in it were far too generic: the ASC’s clothes included a fair percentage of underwear. And Falstaff’s hornèd hat was not obviously made from a football helmet, as at the ASC. On the other hand, Falstaff’s gingham dress was better at the ASC. Of course, these are far from the most important features of a production.

Words: I had trouble hearing all the words in the BBC version. If this were a stage play recorded live, I could blame the technicians, but it was made for TV, so there’s really no excuse. Not that the diction was terrible, but to take one tiny example, I wouldn’t have comprehended Falstaff’s comparison of Pistol and Nym to a “gemini of baboons” (II.2) if I hadn’t already heard the phrase clearly at ASC. When I’m at the Blackfriars, I don’t even notice the actors’ competence in pronouncing and projecting their lines, and reinforcing them with gestures. I just take all that for granted until I see a non-ASC play.

Characters: I’m still gathering my thoughts about the various Pages and Fords. In the mean time, here are some notes on the other characters:

Falstaff: Richard Griffiths (BBC) was a disappointment: too short, too thin, too soft — almost effeminate, and way too young. He looked 25, and I was surprised to learn from IMDB that he was 35 when the film was made. Nolan Carey (ASC’s Nym) played Falstaff in the MFA production of 2 Henry IV earlier this year, and also looked too young, but there’s only so much you can do with makeup, and youthful looks are to be expected in a student production. He was tall enough and fat enough for the part, though his fat suit got a little carried away in the (how shall I put this?) man-boobs area. James Keegan’s ASC Falstaff is, or appears to be, taller, fatter, older, and at the same time more vigorous than Griffiths, and he wears his fat suit very naturally. He is, in short, imposing. I’ve only dipped into my two recordings of Verdi’s opera lately (Haitink at the Royal Opera House in 1999, with Bryn Terfel in the title role, and Muti at La Scala in 2001), but all three of the operatic Falstaffs I’ve seen have the appropriate height, heft, and general vigor and dominance. Muti’s Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri, ruins this with a hair style blatantly lifted from Krusty the Clown, but that’s another story.

Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and Mine Host of the Garter: With no doubling of roles and (presumably) a much larger budget, the BBC does a good job with these four. I found it hard to understand the stylistic jokes in both versions (Pistol’s Marlovian boasting, Nym’s “humors”) and had to read about them in the Arden edition, but I suppose that is inevitable.

Shallow: Alan Bennett (BBC) is a harmless and very decrepit old man, while René Thornton, Jr. (ASC) is a hilariously dirty old perv, though he is too big and healthy to look quite as decrepit as he ought.

Slender: Richard O’Callaghan (BBC) is depicted as a fop, in fact looks a bit like some depictions of Shakespeare, and his “I am not altogether an ass” is fairly convincing. The ASC Slender (Chris Johnston) is altogether an ass and then some, and comes across as very young and a total dork — hilariously awful.

Fenton: Not much to say except that Tobias Shaw (ASC) is younger and much handsomer than his BBC counterpart.

Sir Hugh Evans: The BBC Sir Hugh’s Welsh accent, though presumably authentic, was nearly undetectable, at least to my untutored ears. Apparently the BBC thought putting a real Welshman in the part (Tenniel Evans) would suffice, but his failure to audibly mix up his Bs and Ps and so on ruined many of the jokes. Perhaps they were afraid of offending the Welsh, but a fake Welshman with a comically-exaggerated accent, like Chris Seiler at the ASC, would have been funnier. (Cf. Henry James, “The Real Thing”.)

Dr Caius: Daniel Rigney (ASC) looks much younger than Michael Bryant (BBC) and also (therefore?) less threatening, both to his servants and to Sir Hugh. I’m not sure whether that’s a plus or a minus or just a difference. I’m also not sure whether making Dr Caius and Slender look twice the age of Anne Page is a good thing in so far as May-December matches are both historically plausible and creepy, or whether that distracts from the main lines of the plot. Still thinking about this.

Mistress Quickly: Without giving away too many details for those who haven’t seen the play, Alison Glenzer (ASC) makes very effective use of her skirt and cleavage for comic purposes. The BBC Quickly was rather dull, at least by comparison.

Bit Parts: I don’t have much to say about the servants except that I couldn’t tell whether Ron Cook’s Peter Simple (BBC) was supposed to be 15 or 40 — he always seemed to be one or the other, nothing in between, which was a bit disturbing, and his simpleness looked like cliché mental retardation, while Erin Baird (ASC) comes across as none too swift but mostly naïve and very young.

The BBC postmaster’s boy and the other male ‘bride’ at the end were played by actual boys who could plausibly pass for girls. At least I’m assuming they were boys: it wasn’t easy to tell, which I suppose was the point. More farcically, the ASC uses the two biggest available men in the cast, René Thornton, Jr. and Nolan Carey. In this case, as in most cases, I prefer farce to verisimilitude.

How to sum up? If you’re anywhere near Staunton, Virginia, come see the play.

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