Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The original sitcom - by Shakespeare

By John Nathan, August 26, 2010

Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1

Falstaff (Christopher Benjamin) is humiliated by the merry wives (Serena Evans, left and Sarah Woodward)

Falstaff (Christopher Benjamin) is humiliated by the merry wives (Serena Evans, left and Sarah Woodward)

Shakespeare's only comedy to be set in the country of his birth lays reasonable claim to being the world's first sitcom.

Populated by Windsor's middle classes, it could easily be located in the closeted world of suburbia. There is a daughter whose father wants her to marry for money; there is a fish-out-of-water Frenchman with a funny accent, and central character is a fat bloke who thinks he is God's gift to women.

His name is Falstaff, the knight buffoon adopted by Prince Hal in Henry IV Part One, and devastatingly rejected when Hal becomes King at the end of Part Two. If you are quick, you can see the Globe's current and acclaimed productions of these history plays - starring Roger Allam as Falstaff - and then see the fat knight again in this 2008 production of Merry Wives - here played by Christopher Benjamin.

It is said that Elizabeth I was such a fan of Falstaff - of the character, not his qualities - that a royal request was made for him to make a comeback after Henry IV. The result is a feel-good play with little of the introspection of Shakespeare's other comedies. But, come to that, nor is there much introspection in sitcoms such as the BBC's Fawlty Towers, which director Christopher Luscombe suggests can be traced right back to Merry Wives.

Certainly as Frank Ford, the jealous husband of one of the two wives of the title, Andrew Havill appears
to have taken his cue from Basil Fawlty at his most neurotic. Only it is not sneaky hotel inspectors that Ford is seeking to expose, but his wife's non-existent lover.

The director suggests that Fawlty Towers can be traced back to Merry Wives

Fuelling his false belief is Falstaff, whose attempt to seduce both Mrs Ford (Sarah Woodward) and her married friend Meg (Serena Evans) results in a plan hatched by these playful but respectable women that leads Falstaff on and unwittingly stokes Ford's paranoia too. Led by his misplaced vanity, the rotund Falstaff waddles into every trap set by the women. With the jealous Ford on his trail, the knight first suffers the indignity of hiding in a dirty laundry basket and then disguising himself as an old hag. And it is here that Ford is at his most Fawltyesque. When he fails to catch Falstaff red-handed, he shakes his fist at the heavens in rage.

And in the scene in which Ford searches through smelly underwear in the belief that Falstaff is hidden in the pile, Merry Wives not only reveals its claim to be the source of all sitcom but holds a mirror up to the genre as well.

Remember the Fawlty episode in which Basil breaks into a briefcase in the belief that it contains the valuables of a Lord, only to find that it contains bricks; or the one where he pushes his hands into a soufflé in the hope it contains a roast duck? It is with that same desperation that Ford searches through the basket before he realises what we have long known - that Falstaff is by now somewhere else and in the process of getting his own just desserts.

In this play, the men have a much harder time of it. On that level, Merry Wives is the antidote to Shakespeare's more misogynistic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, which may have been written
at the same time, some scholars say.

Here, every time a man exhibits one of his more ego- or libido-driven vices, he pays a price. Falstaff pays three times over. In the role of the rogue, Benjamin emphasises a lovable vulnerability. So much so, perhaps
we love this Falstaff a little more than we should.

It is pretty broad stuff as comedy goes, but it works a treat. And if broad means that a joke written in the 1590s is funny to the Globe's modern international audience, there is something miraculous in that.

As the play reaches its climax in Windsor Park for Falstaff's final humiliation, the evening metamorphosis into a dream-like riot of colour and strangeness, as children and adults prance in fantastical costumes around their cowering quarry. Not even the best TV sit-coms manage that.

(Tel: 020 7401 9919)

Last updated: 11:18am, August 26 2010