Review: Merry Wives of Windsor – New Theatre, Newtown (NSW)

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Victor Kalka

Reviewed by Justin Clarke

One of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is imaginatively adapted at the New Theatre with an Australian 80’s twist. Shakespeare’s setting of Windsor, England becomes the New South Wales suburban town of Windsor, Australia. Renaissance doublets have been replaced with extravagant perms and neon active wear; flagons of ale are instead VB tinnies. It makes for an entirely new reading of Shakespeare’s intricate tale of love, jealousy, and revenge.

Elizabeth I’s favourite Shakespearean character, Sir John Falstaff’s (Cheryl Ward) hangers-on are bleeding his wallet dry and so he puts together a cunning plan to woo two of the wives of Windsor, Mistress Page (Suzann James) and Mistress Ford (Roslyn Hicks), to gain control of their husband’s wealth. Not being the dim-witted women Falstaff believes them to be, the two women catch on immediately and so set out to humiliate Falstaff over and over. Meanwhile, Master Ford (Rob Ferguson) believing his wife to be in a cuckold, goes to Falstaff in disguise and pays him to test his wife’s infidelity. So ensues a rather confusing plot of cross-purposes true to Shakespearean form.

Amongst all of this, three suitors fight for the dowry of the beautiful Anne Page (Jessie Lancaster) with her true love, the traditionally male character Fenton (Olivia Xegas) recast as a woman. Amidst all of this, the messenger, Mistress Quickly (Priyanka Karunanithi), uses the chaos to line her own pockets.

Director Victor Kalka and dramaturg Samuel Webster have made bold choices in staging their interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. With the main stage consisting of a hills hoist, brick house with frilly curtains and plastic lounge chairs, it’s quite reminiscent of a Neighbours setting and seems to have taken the phrase “A man’s home is his castle” as influence for these decisions. Falstaff becomes a rotund Australian larrikin with a libido equivalent to the size of his ridiculous moustache. The Wives of Windsor are straight out of Kath and Kim, Mistress Page’s “look at moi” slanged speech rivals Mistress Ford’s leopard printed garments and slicked-down fringe – it makes for some enjoyable nostalgia.

Among the cast is a wealth of experience that comes to the forefront of the show when speaking Shakespeare’s language.

As Falstaff, Cheryl Ward uses physical comedy that enhances the ridiculousness of the moustachioed potbellied fool that is a favourite in Shakespeare’s works. At times the character’s voice became a bit too meek for the stage and relied on physical stature alone to make an impact against the other characters.

Among the cast is a wealth of experience that comes to the forefront of the show when speaking Shakespeare’s language. Susan Jordan’s Hostess of the Garter brings a quick-witted joy to her mischievous character. Karunanithi revels in the deception that Mistress Quickly plays upon her neighbours with winks and asides to the audience. Rob Thompson’s Doctor Caius was a standout performance with absurdly tight, small pants and buttoned-down shirt, sporting a uniquely over-the-top French accent that would have made the Monty Python crew proud. Dwayne Lawler’s priest, Sir Hugh Evans, has a subtle Irish accent with effective diction throughout. Hicks and James’ chemistry as the Wives effectively raises the energy in each scene they feature.

There were moments when creative choices were questionable. The moment Sir Hugh breaks out into Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” while praying without any backing music was cringeworthy and oddly placed. The use of the still set’s one backyard becoming the multiple spaces and settings in the work became blurred apart from some repeated places, Falstaff’s castle being one of them. This could have been rectified through more intricate use of lights and staging.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a dramaturgically sound production taking Shakespeare’s classic comedic romp that is an examination on middle-class life in England and brings it to suburban 80’s Australia. With some standout performances that bring life to the script, it’s an interesting take that not many will have seen.

Reviewer Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Photos © Bob Seary

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the New Theatre until the 21st May 2022. Tickets can be booked via their website


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