In the true spirit of provincial rebellion against the centre, Northern Broadsides’ The Merry Wives (presented by British Council and Standard Chartered at Birla Sabhagar, November 29) makes a political point of doing Shakespeare in northern accent—arguably as difficult to follow as Caribbean or Indian English. After all, the Bard of Avon belongs to everyone, and it is only historical circumstance that raised the East Midlands dialect round London to the standard English spoken today.
In this respect the company certainly alights on one of Shakespeare’s main concerns here: the politics of language. Falstaff is the only major character to talk Queen’s English, but his “proper” speech does not help him to win over the women. Shakespeare appears to suggest that Falstaff’s is the tongue of artifice, and that of the others nature’s own. Thus, Northern Broadsides may have Shakespeare’s implicit approval for using their “natural” voice. They also defensibly replace references to Windsor with a regional town, but otherwise remain faithful to the text.
Barrie Rutter directs this comedy as a rambunctious farce, justifiably placing it within the hoary heritage of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus on one chronological side and Moliere’s Scapin on the other. His Falstaff becomes one more outrageously funny laughing-stock in this continuum of the braggart soldier. Naturally, this means sacrificing something Shakespearean—in this case, the portrayal of busy bourgeois provincial life that imbues this work with a bustling, collective sense of community.
Of course, leftwing critics may see it in a different light. Falstaff (the only knight apart from Sir Hugh), uncourtly and unchivalrous, thus quite untrue to knightly virtues, represents immoral upper echelons upsetting the sound morality of middle-class society. The lambasting given him becomes a comic paradigm of class struggle. The play has a feminist angle too; faced by male lust and jealousy (Falstaff and Ford respectively), the merry wives triumph together as a sisterhood. Rutter is either oblivious of or ignores the possibilities of such “serious” interpretations.
But in his own way he succeeds like few can or have. The general professionalism, timing and delivery are impeccable. Not a second goes waste, the audience carried along on a roller-coaster of merriment that peaks in the utterly gut-busting buck-basket scene. Rutter knows how to stage a farce instinctively. Even the unbelievable fairy scene is transformed by the fairies singing in perfect doo-wop harmony from the Fifties. It is a tribute to the actors that they do not depend on sets to distract attention, and we do not mind the absence of anything on stage except for the essential arras.
The cast hams up the histrionics to convey Shakespeare’s purpose that everyone has eccentricities which we can and should laugh at—a corner-stone of comic theory. Notable roles are those of Rutter himself as the fat Sir with a lecherous leer and satyric bend of the ankle, and Lawrence Evans who turns the French doctor (a part difficult to visualize on the printed page) into a hilarious theatrical presence. Only Conrad Nelson (the host of the inn) looks out of place, as an effeminate mischief-maker wearing a printed shirt unbuttoned down to his navel.
(From The Telegraph, 8 December 1993)