Geraint Wyn Davies’s other starring role this year is as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This is, let’s not beat around the bush, not a very good play. I don’t merely mean that it’s not first-rate Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida is a structurally problematic play. Two Gentlemen of Verona is a hodge-podge with a weird and unsatisfying ending. Timon of Athens has a weak story and a lot of writing that still feels like a rough draft. Richard II is beautiful to read, but its formal nature and lack of dramatic incident makes it a real challenge to stage.
Merry Wives isn’t a problematic play. It works just fine. It just isn’t very good. It is a considerably shallower comedy than A Comedy of Errors – actually, that suggest that A Comedy of Errors is shallow, which it appears to be but really isn’t – to say nothing of comparisons to the sublime comedy that runs through the Henry IV plays where Falstaff originated. The center of Merry Wives isn’t actually Falstaff at all, but Master Francis Ford, the jealous husband. He’s the one with a character arc, and precisely because there’s some emotional depth to his character he’s also quite a bit funnier than Falstaff is.
But there’s still a lot of comic potential in the play. And the most important parts are realized in this production. I would highlight in particular Lucy Peacock’s Mistress Ford and Tom Rooney’s Francis Ford. Ms. Peacock is entirely convincing when she cracks up while trying to trick Falstaff into hiding in the laundry basket – I wasn’t the only one in the theatre who wondered for a moment whether she wasn’t actually cracking herself up, rather than acting. But she’s also entirely convincing in her offended reaction to her husband’s distrust. And Rooney, well, if he did nothing but stand there in the ridiculous feminine wig and overcoat that he wears as a disguise to meet Falstaff, I would still be rolling in the aisles. But he does so much more than this. To this delightful pair, I’d add Laura Condlln as Mistress Page, who is the perfect best-friend and partner-in-crime with Ms. Peacock’s Mistress Ford (though she’s less distinct in the Anne Page subplot).
Wyn Davies himself is at his best when he lets his inner goat romp freely. “Am I a woodman, ha?” he asks lasciviously with both Mistresses on his lap, and the house very nearly comes down. But he seems to be channeling his impersonation of Dylan Thomas rather than playing Falstaff, and I don’t just mean the incongruous thick Welsh accent (especially confusing because there is another character who’s actually identified as Welsh, who does not have such an accent, and who Falstaff mocks for being Welsh). Falstaff is, whatever else he may be, a knight. He’s aware of his rank, proud of it, and disdainful of his inferiors – among whom he most certainly includes Master Ford, the man he intends to cuckold. And that sense of social position and pretension – absurd, to be sure, but still an element in his character – is something I never got from Wyn Davies.
The real problem with the production is that nether the director, Frank Galati, nor the actors adequately mined the peripheral characters for comic potential. Chris Prentice gives good line readings as the idiot Slender, but we don’t see that he’s a fool; he isn’t given anything to do. Janet Wright is inadequate as the mercenary Mistress Quickly; I really wondered what kind of discussions she and Galati had had about the character, if any – I can’t even tell you what her interpretation of the character was. Nigel Bennett does a charmingly awful French accent, and is appropriately stiff and pop-eyed as Doctor Caius, but neither set nor costume gives us any hint that he is, in fact, a doctor (and the low comic potential to be exploited from his profession should be obvious). Finally, the Anne Page subplot, which badly needs help to be made interesting, doesn’t get the help it needs. I don’t know whether Trent Pardy’s Fenton – the man who she intends to marry – is actually a fortune-hunter or a decent guy; I don’t know whether Anne (played by Andre Runge) is a fool for loving him or sees that he’s the real thing; I don’t know whether her mother and father (the latter played by Tom McCamus) are appalled by her choice or merely disappointed (and I don’t know why Master Ford objects to his wife’s preferred suitor, Doctor Caius, nor why she favors him, apart from the fact that he’s not a fool like Slender). This is a fault in the text – the plot and characters are tossed off rather than developed – but that calls for creative choice on the part of the director and cast that make things more distinct, so that we care about what’s going on when Falstaff and the Fords aren’t on stage.
But my son loved it. Falstaff hides in a basket! He gets beaten while wearing a dress! And Wyn Davies, to his credit, finds ample other opportunities for comic business (I’m thinking in particular of the business with his foot bath water) to lard on top of the big set pieces. So: it may not be a great play. It may not exploit all the comic potential in the peripheral characters. But if it’s funny enough for my kid, it’s funny enough.