The Merry Wives Of Windsor, York Shakespeare Project, Rowntree Park, York, May 30 to June 5 (From York Press)
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The Merry Wives Of Windsor, York Shakespeare Project, Rowntree Park, York, May 30 to June 5
NORMALLY, reviews of al fresco theatre shows end with a weather warning that is as much a part of the great English summer as rioting for trainers, ignominious defeats for England’s tired footballers and rusty barbecues.
You know the drill: if a performance is rained off, ticket holders will be refunded. Thankfully, however, the only wet stuff that accompanies The Merry Wives Of Windsor is the sack being quaffed with gargantuan gusto by Elizabeth I’s favourite fat drunkard, Sir John Falstaff: the forerunner of the out-of-town fat lad on the pull on a Micklegate bender.
History has it that The Merry Wives was penned in a frantic fortnight at Queen Bess’s behest as a comic encore for Falstaff after he was such a big hit in every way in the Henry history plays.
If so, he was a victim of his success, as he is the butt of the joke played by Shakespeare in one of his lesser-known but easiest-to-follow comedies, here given a clear-thinking interpretation by University of York masters degree student Tom Straszewski in his YSP directorial debut.
He is full of good decisions, from his casting choices to having Joe Steele’s band to the side of the stage in a gazebo, playing perky old folk tunes (and a Billy Bragg-style hymn to the romantic map of Britain beforehand). Inspired too is the demarcation between out of townies and Windsor’s community by the use of face paint for the invasion force led by Falstaff. Straszewski has been appearing in YSP shows since 2009 and combines this inside track with a desire to put his writing, directing and performance studies into practice. “Previous directors I’ve worked with have been very focused on the language, and while speaking verse well is essential, it’s not the key thing in Merry Wives,” he says.
The ability to bring characters alive through movement and physicality is more important, he argues, in order to address the issue of playing such a big, open space as Rowntree Park.
His cast has carried out that philosophy to the max in big, bold, expressive performances, none more so than Clive Lyons, whose return to the stage for the first time since student days makes you wonder how he could resist the lure of the greasepaint for so long (work commitments, apparently).
Not only is Lyons physically imposing, with an absurdly rotund fat-suit clasped to his stomach like a turtle, he has a volcanic rumble in his voice to go with his naturally humorous rhythms. What a find for YSP.
Likewise, Victoria Delaney stands out in her YSP debut as Mistress Page, working the stage space to the full and engaging the audience in eye contact. Clancy McMullan bonds well with her as Mistress Ford, her partner in outwitting Falstaff’s ribald advances.
Richard Johnson is madly French as the jilted Doctor Caius, Ben Sawyer’s bluff as Master Ford in Irish disguise is a delightful deception; Kayleigh Oliver’s Mistress Quickly is as nimble in deed as her name, and good turns come from Katy Devine’s Anne Page and Joe Gregory’s Slender too.
Lucy Beveridge’s set is fit for a jubilee celebration and a merry time will be had by all.
The Merry Wives Of Windsor, York Shakespeare Project, Rowntree Park, York, May 30 to June 5, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on the door.
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