The Merry Wives of Windsor
Bowes Museum, the magnificent French styled palace just outside Barnard Castle, plays host this year to the UK’s first exhibition of fashion designer and pioneer Yves St Laurent. Guaranteed to draw crowds from all over the UK and beyond, the YSL show – Style is Eternal - has already piqued the interest of VIPs and fashionistas alike but this isn’t the only production at Bowes with such a far reaching appeal destined to play out to capacity crowds. The Castle Players, the premier al-fresco production company bring their summer show to the museum grounds and guarantee to give as unique and ground-breaking an experience as the Algerian/French fashion designer himself.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy written in the early 16 hundreds and set in & around the castle of the same name (rather than pertaining to the family name) is this year’s offering by the much awarded and truly dedicated cast and crew. Bringing back to centre stage, Shakespeare resurrects Falstaff, the larger than life, womanising philanderer with a waistline only shadowed by his ego, to play linchpin to this typical comedy tale of cross and double cross. In his oft deluded state, the portly knight believes that his appeal to the fairer sex is impossible to deny and he merely needs to cast an eye their way to have them swooning and fawning. In need of money to maintain his extravagant lifestyle, Falstaff hatches a plan to woo and seduce the wives of 2 wealthy men, blackmail them for their silence and steal all their wealth. Of course, the audience know all too well that Falstaff is regularly played at his own game with his ego being laid out before him, destined to trip and tumble back to his rightful place at the foot of the inn keeper.
This new approach, directed by Mary Stastny, sets the tale in the Edwardian era, with the introduction of streetwalkers, inn girls, suffragettes and even a motorised tram car. It is testament to the writing of The Bard that his style, prose and in particular storylines are so readily transported to a more modern setting with little lost in terms of both character or plot. The introduction of some ‘traditional’ bar songs bring the tale into the musical hall and helps serve to engage the audience further.
What is always a favourite aspect of watching the Castle Players is the ease at which the cast deliver their parts; not only are they consummate professionals in their approach to learning and understanding the script, but they are so relaxed with each other that should there be a slight slip or deviation from the plan then they embrace it (and each other) – there are no airs and graces here, the 4th wall is more a loosely constructed picket fence through which the audience is encouraged to peek.
Stand out performances must start with the Portly Knight himself – Falstaff, played with total abandon by Gordon Duffy-McGhie. Gordon was brilliant; lecherous, conniving, self-centred and totally deluded in his own self importance. The two ‘wives’ – Mistress Ford (Marzia Aloisio) and Mistress Page (Jill Cole) were equally beautiful and alluring and yet held the newly found strength and confidence befitting the ‘modern’ woman of the early 20th Century. Sean Mitchell, as Abraham Slender, showed again his fabulous character acting – he seems able to immerse himself in any role and I’m sure there were many in the audience who, like me, would expect to see a lot more of Sean in the coming years. Special mention to Steven Bainbridge – not only has Steven arranged and directed all the music, but had to sit at the Garter Inn piano throughout the whole performance – not easy to stay there in the rain and cold and still get his fingers to keep moving. This is the first summer production to be directed by Mary Stastny As many of her predecessors have learned through experience, sitting in March & April planning an outdoor summer production is oft done with the rose tinted expectations of long balmy evenings, temperatures still holding in the low 20’s and the ground giving back its stored heat of the day. The ambition to create the best possible production, to include a few more scenes, an extra song or two or to be less critical in the abridging of a few monologues (and let’s face it, Shakespeare loved his pages and pages of monologues) can take over from the reality that many of the audience will have been sat from before 7 and won’t get to leave until gone 11pm. The British summer can never be relied upon as seen by last night’s performance which was played out in rain, a cool breeze and, by the time of the 45 minute interval, temperatures in single figures. Sadly this is not unique for our summers so maybe there needed to be a more pragmatic understanding that whilst the intent to showcase all the director’s skills was admirable, less is more – cold and tired hands don’t tend to applaud for too long.
The Castle Players production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is on at Bowes Museum until Saturday – parking for the next few nights is not available at the museum itself but will be open at the adjacent school. Bring a picnic for the interval, a cushion for your bum and a blanket for your knees and settle down to watch another wonderful performance by one of the UKs best Shakespeare companies.