The Merry Wives of Windsor. Northern Broadsides. Directed by Barrie Rutter and Conrad Nelson. 1 March - 23 June 2001.
Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Lisa. "Review of The Merry Wives of Windsor." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 18.1-3 <URL:

    Design by Jessica Worrall, music by Conrad Nelson. With Fine Time Fontayne as Robert Shallow, Conrad Nelson as Sir Hugh Evans, Adam Sunderland as Abraham Slender, Roy North as George Page, Barrie Rutter as Sir John Falstaff, Gerard McDermott as Bardolph / Rugby, Andrew Pollard as Pistol / William, Matthew Booth as Nim / Fenton, Joanna Swain as Mistress Page, Michelle Hardwick as Ann Page / Robin, Maggie Ollerenshaw as Mistress Ford, Tom Silburn as Peter Simple, Marie Louise O'Donnell as Mistress Quickly, Andrew Whitehead as Doctor Caius, Geoffrey Leesley as Frank Ford, and Andrew Vincent as Host.

  1. At first sight, The Merry Wives of Windsor might seem an odd choice of play for a company who pride themselves on doing Shakespeare in northern accents. In this touring production, however, the locality moves with the company. Thus, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the fat woman of Brentford becomes the fat woman of Wakefield, and the venue for the proposed marriage of Anne Page and Slender became Harewood House, a popular local setting for weddings. The obvious enjoyment of the audience, though, was due not only to these accommodations to locality, but, above all, to strong ensemble playing by a very talented cast who were obviously hugely enjoying themselves.

  2. Perhaps partly because this is a touring production, the company have not encumbered themselves with props. A simple green carpet covered most of the floorspace of the West Yorkshire's larger auditorium, the Quarry Theatre. It is loosely suggestive of a golf course, and the plus fours worn by Adam Sunderland's deliciously idiotic, P. G. Wodehouse-ish Abraham Slender echo the association. Apart from that, this is that richest sort of staging, poor theatre: a simple rail and curtain are used to conceal Sir John Falstaff, a stepladder is Herne's Oak, and Sir John (who takes refuge from the fairies up the ladder) disguises himself as Herne by wearing bicycle handlebars, complete with bell (which is duly rung). Costumes are also simple: Joanna Swain's Mistress Page is sensible and matronly in a purple trouser suit, Maggie Ollerenshaw's Mistress Ford more obvious prey for Falstaff in a smart red check suit with a short skirt, while her husband disguises himself as Brook by wearing a pork pie hat which he jumps up and down on when he learns how Falstaff escaped him. The nearest thing to flamboyance is the extravagantly camp walk of Andrew Whitehead's Doctor Caius, whose wildly fierce "By Gars!" modulate by the end of the evening to a firmly Yorkshire "Bugger!"

  3. All the cast are strong, and some are outstanding. Barrie Rutter is in his element as a Sir John whose artificial belly means he can hardly get up or sit down, yet is always ready to caper at a lady. Both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page time their responses to him perfectly, making both buck-baskets scenes hilarious, especially when Geoffrey Leesley's frenzied Ford throws the clothes behind him over the heads of his hapless servants. The wellington-booted musical fairies, singing and playing the music of Conrad Nelson, who also acts Sir Hugh, could perform as an act in their own right. But perhaps the most engaging performance comes from Marie Louise O'Donnell, whose Mistress Quickly is a whimsical Irish skivvy who brings something of the spirited mischief and energy of Synge to the part, making her less an accessory to the plot than a means of unlocking the very considerable reservoirs of emotion and fantasy on which this strange but pleasing play draws.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)