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The Merry Wives of Windsor

Saturday 13 July 2019

Of all the inconveniences of relocation, there are few more frustrating than realising you’ll be passing one of your favourite theatre companies like ships in the night.* Back when I was still waltzing around the West End, the excellent HandleBards were peddling through the West Country performing their unique brand of small-scale Shakespeare at outdoor venues. Now that I’ve moved down south, they’re on their way to the capital. Typical.

But as good luck would have it, Exeter’s very own Cygnet Theatre were here to fill the void with their production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the glorious setting of a Lympstone garden. While the audience relaxed on camping chairs enjoying their picnics, the cast carried us along on their scheming plots. When seeing unfamiliar Shakespeare I usually read up on the main story lines in advance – SparkNotes can be credited not only with my English GCSE, but for several enjoyable evenings of otherwise incomprehensible theatre. On this occasion I didn’t have chance, and I needn’t have worried, as the performers told the story with remarkable clarity.

The buffoonish Falstaff draws obvious present-day comparisons, but Mistresses Page and Ford were surprisingly even more relatable. While many have attempted to make Shakespearian characters resonate with a modern audience, I have seen few devices so simple and effective as the Merry Wives’ fondness for snacks. Their sharing of tasty treats served to highlight their close bond, and also ensured that they didn’t have to meddle on an empty stomach.

Falstaff, the blustering, lewd, gold-digger, is the object of the wives’ conniving. Having established that Mistresses Page and Ford are the keepers of their husbands’ purse-strings, the cash-strapped anti-hero attempts to woo them with identical advances. Unfortunately for Falstaff, he makes the age-old oversight: women talk to each other. Thus ensues mayhem as the Wives conspire to make his life a misery.

Cygnet Theatre trains young actors in ensemble performance, and this was evident throughout as students and professionals gelled seamlessly, some switching rapidly between characters. The entire cast gave assured performances, but for me Harriet Birks, as Mistress Page, was a standout. Her delivery was thoroughly engaging, and her reactions to other characters’ dialogue was pitched perfectly: amusing the audience without seeming hammy or detrimentally drawing focus.

The production was perfectly suited to the surroundings, with the cast incorporating trees, shrubs and some charming local fairies into their telling. Overall it was a wonderfully enjoyable evening of entertainment. The Lympstone locals were incredibly welcoming, and the garden-party atmosphere made for a refreshing change from the usual “face front and sit silently” theatre atmosphere. Apparently it’s an annual fixture, so I highly recommend a trip in 2020; I’ll certainly be there to celebrate the first anniversary of my inaugural Exeter theatre outing.

* If the removal van had got lost, furniture not fitted, or electricity at my new digs been disconnected, then I would not be making such a bold claim.

Sat 13 June 2019