This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Bitter Pill and Theatre Company Kenya, Dir. Daniel Goldman and Sarah Norman, 25 April 2012 at The Globe, London
By Sarah Olive, University of York
Two feisty, wickedly funny women. Two pretty grand households in a wealthy neighbourhood. A gaggle of flawed men, jealous or lecherous, who have in common their desire for, and their failure to outsmart, the local ladies. A series of farcical domestic shenanigans, including a panting lover hiding from an enraged husband in a gargantuan laundry basket to escape being discovered in his wife’s bedroom. Children who roll their eyes at their parents’ embarrassing follies, resistant to and wiser than their elders.
Such a scenario could very well belong to Wisteria Lane, home of Desperate Housewives, or any other such American comedy-drama where secrets and lies, truths and untruths, are spun out and revealed by groups of female friends. It is this location/period unspecific quality which speaks most profoundly of Bitter Pill and Theatre Kenya’s achievement in this tight, uncomplicated production of Merry Wives. Their rendering of the play foregrounded universal types over extra-textual concepts or theoretically-informed comment. The audience could just as easily have been observing the goings-on among the picket-fenced plots of post-Millennium Fairview, in Elizabethan Windsor, or an affluent suburb of Nairobi today (the latter setting signalled perhaps most strongly by costuming choices including Mistress Page’s bright headscarf as well as the spirits whose masks, music and dance seemed to draw on tribal traditions). There were few Swahili speakers in the audience – although those who were in evidence found plenty of humour in the translated language of the play. However, there was no shortage of laughter at Mrisho Mpoto’s fat-suited Falstaff or Neville Sanganyi’s affected Slender. The audience’s unceasing mirth was proof of the way in which the actors captured a panoply of characters’ essences through their mannerisms, facial expressions and intonation in a way that transcended language and appealed to a global community.
For me, the factor which distinguished these genuinely merry wives most strikingly from their tight-lipped, mean-eyed, modern-day desperate counterparts, was the way in which their relationship was untinged by backstabbing or one-upmanship. They were brim-full of shared, conspiratorial glee, covering Falstaff in a hide rug, Mistress Page perched on top of him, as though he were a daybed, ‘accidentally’ but nonetheless roundly slapping him through the fabric to punctuate her ‘concern’ at Master Ford’s imminent approach. I never doubted for a moment that Chichi Seii’s Mistress Page and Lydiah Gitachu’s Mistress Ford were best of friends – Mistress Page watched the Ford’s reconciliation with unadulterated pleasure, whooping with delight as they kissed and made up.
Furthermore, in the vein of straightforward Elizabethan comedy or a modern sit-com rather than catty drama, the production’s end restored order and happiness. Falstaff, at first dejected, was encouraged to dine with the others, before becoming the focal point of a celebratory dance, cheered on by his neighbours as he vigorously threw shapes. Nor was Falstaff left alone as the other characters paired up for their exits – plucking a woman from the audience, he exited proudly with her on his arm. This was a community, which, with the wit and insight of Mistresses Page and Ford, cured itself of the follies that threatened to divide it.
Having mentioned at the end of the show that I was planning a review featuring popular culture parallels and a feel-good, girl-power factor, my companion asked me ‘can’t it just be about the fact that there’s some pretty good acting’? Well, yes, it could have been. Especially given the way in which the eight actors successfully and humorously covered twenty parts (more if one counts the non-speaking roles of, for example, the children disguised as spirits). But, alas, I lack the expertise and technical vocabulary to fill a review with my analysis of that. I’ll look forward to seeing your comments on that element instead.
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Want to know what other audience members thought of the production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:
Listen below to an interview with two of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
What others thought of the production: