The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Paweł Aigner for The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre at The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, Gdańsk, Poland. 2015
Reviewed by Urszula Kizelbach
The Merry Wives of Windsor (2015) – Shakespeare reloaded in the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre
During the 19th Shakespeare Festival in Gdańsk the audience knew the Polish director Paweł Aigner prepared an entertainment in a truly Elizabethan style, but the amount of energy, colour, and stage bravura surpassed our expectations. Before the premiere Aigner said: “I wanted it to be a daring and dynamic show. The play will have modern energy, but the costumes and all the rest [stage set] will suit Elizabethan theatre traditions and the space of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre”. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a co-production of Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre and Teatr Wybrzeże, also from Gdańsk. Interestingly, Aigner’s Merry Wives is the first play to be staged in an Elizabethan fashion in a relatively short history of the new Shakespeare Theatre; for the purpose of this performance the stage was raised, it was open to the audience from three sides, and the viewers had a chance to stand in “the pit” and, occasionally, interact with the actors. The author of this review, for example, had a chance to catch a pair of linen long johns, which were thrown at the audience in the scene of the secret taking away of Falstaff hidden in the laundry basket from Mistress Ford’s house.
Merry Wives tells a story of Falstaff, a cunning, calculating and cowardly knight who wants to make money acting as a suitor to two married women – Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Although Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a rather unpleasant fellow, Grzegorz Gzyl who plays Falstaff in the Polish production exhibits a genuine sense of humour (also thanks to Stanisław Barańczak’s translation) and is able to win the audience’s sympathy by his overwhelming charm when he, for example, turns the stage into a catwalk and walks in the direction of the audience imitating a real man by displaying his fancy costume which covers his very masculine (he thinks so) body. Large applause from the audience follows. Gzyl’s Falstaff, naturally, has a lot in common with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, they are characterised by the same artfulness and vanity. For instance, as a result of a trick devised by Mistress Ford and Mistress Page to hide him from Mister Ford returning home Falstaff is encouraged to dress as “the fat woman of Brentford”. Falstaff is wearing a fancy Elizabethan dress, a broad-brimmed hat and to make him look even fatter he pretends to have a fake pregnant belly by choosing from an array of bellies hanging on clothes hangers. The spectators immediately recognise this metatheatrical humour and start laughing the moment Grzegorz Gzyl tries on each belly and consults them to see which belly suits him best. Another display of vanity is when old and chubby Falstaff looks in the mirror. We can see his reflection standing just next to him – it is young and slim Marcin Miodek, an actor dressed in black who, apart from playing Simple, acts as a stage-hand, often invisible. Miodek is carrying a mirror frame, he is imitating Falstaff’s movements and facial expressions, but at some point the reflection starts living his own life, the actor turns to the audience, winks at them, and pulls up his shirt displaying a chiselled torso. A roar of laughter follows.
What contributes to the success of the performance is the director’s good understanding of Elizabethan theatrical conventions. Aigner uses cross-dressing for the part of Abraham Slender (played by a very slim actress Dorota Androsz) and doubling for the roles of Simple, Ford’s servant and stage-hands (played by Marcin Miodek and Daniel Kulczyński). Shakespeare wrote his parts for specific actors in The King’s Men, and it seems that Aigner had a similar idea whom to cast in the roles of, for example, Mistress Quickly or Doctor Caius. Katarzyna Figura who plays Mistress Quickly is sensually lush; she brings into the production her reputation of a sex bomb she was considered to be almost thirty years ago, when she played, for example, in Pociąg do Hollywood (1987). Figura as Mistress Quickly manifests in a funny way her exposed swelling breasts; her movements, voice and physiognomy in this performance turn her into a truly burlesque figure (her designer shoes were debated on by some female members of the audience in the break).
Doctor Caius played by Piotr Biedroń is a conceited French doctor, Mistress Page’s favourite candidate to marry her daughter Anne to. He is mainly remembered by his exalted exclamation “Na miły Bóge!” (“For God’s sake”), an ungrammatical phrase which carries a great load of comedy in Polish, but French-like pronunciation. Biedroń’s Caius is verbally juxtaposed with a Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans (Michał Jaros), who is obsessive about correct speech although he himself confuses “p” and “b” in Polish. Shakespeare does it in both Merry Wives and Henry V. This is how Shakespeare marks Welsh pronunciation of English (not the Polish translator). When Caius discovers that the parson was seeking Mistress Quickly’s help in wooing Anne Page for Slender, Justice Shallow’s cousin, he challenges him to a duel. This is the most unforgettable scene during the show, as the swords of Evans and Caius move in slow motion and stop just in front of the rivals’ faces twisted by two (invisible) stage-hands, Miodek and Kulczyński. The way the actors evade the blows or swerve their bodies back and forth in the fight resembles iconic action scenes from The Matrix. Miodek and Kulczyński, the two young debutant actors, graduates of Polish theatre schools, play a vital part as stage-hands and contribute significantly to both comedy and action scenes – they display a great physical potential and acrobatic agility on stage. Miodek’s face expressions and his bodily contortions when he plays a fool, Simple, are hard to describe in words, he sounds and looks pathetic and hilarious. This performance demonstrates a full and a very successful co-operation between more experienced actors with debutants on stage.
The stage set, prepared by Magdalena Gajewska, is very Elizabethan and minimalistic, wooden elements prevail on stage, for instance, the Garter’s Inn is represented by a wooden bench on the stage and Mistress Ford’s house is symbolised by a wooden staircase and a balcony. The central element of decorations are huge deer’s antlers made of wooden branches, which hang right above the stage, thus relating to the main theme of the comedy – adultery and cuckoldry. The set is complemented by actors’ lavish and colourful costumes designed by Zofia De Ines. The performance bursts with energy and laughter, the actors are chasing one another, men cuddle women, stage-hands present a series of gags with the use of props, the already mentioned mirror frame in Falstaff’s moment of vanity or swords flying in slow motion in a Matrix-like action-movie style in duel scenes.
Karolina Garbacik, choreographer and dance teacher, is responsible for stage movement which involves both traditional dance and modern moves used in fight scenes. The choreography in one of the final scenes in Windsor Forest involves dancing to a tune in an Elizabethan style using virginals and flute. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page play their final trick on Falstaff – he is to dress as Herne the Hunter, and meet them by an oak tree. Gzyl’s Falstaff is wearing antlers on his head, and the rest of the actors are wearing animal masks; they encircle Falstaff from all sides and tie his body by pulling climbing ropes. Figura/Mistress Quickly dressed in green as a fairy echoes the song sung by the actors through a megaphone. Falstaff is given a hard lesson, but the bitterness and farce of his situation is compensated by Elizabethan humour, dance and revelry, which, I believe, is very faithful to the play.
One thing is certain, Aigner’s Merry Wives is bound to be repeated many times in Gdańsk, because it won the sympathy of the audiences of all ages. It is a wonderful family entertainment, which takes its viewers to the Elizabethan era with its tawdry aesthetics and fayre traditions. The performance revived Elizabethan history not only through comedy acting but also through the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre’s architecture. It was staged during the day with an open roof. The raised platform with the audience surrounding the actors from all sides gave us all an idea how natural and dynamic an interaction between the spectators and the actors in Shakespeare’s times must have been. Most of us want to come back to Gdańsk and see the play again. Me, for personal reasons, I want to catch another pair of long johns.
Photos by Dawid Linkowski
 “Wesołe kumoszki z Windsoru kradną widzom serca” [The Merry Wives of Windsor steal audiences hearts away] (Translation mine, UK). http://www.e-teatr.pl/pl/artykuly/205277.html
 “Rubaszna satyra na zdradę małżeńską. O Wesołych kumoszkach z Windsoru w GTS” [A bawdy satire on adultery in The Merry Wives of Windsor in The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre] by Łukasz Rudziński (Translation mine, UK). http://kultura.trojmiasto.pl/Rubaszna-satyra-na-zdrade-malzenska-O-Wesolych-kumoszkach-z-Windsoru-wGTS-n91949.html#