The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Globe, 26 April 2012
There is a theory that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives on commandment from Queen Elizabeth because she wanted to see more of the character of Sir John Falstaff after enjoying his appearance in Henry IV Part One.
This is, of course, complete nonsense.
The real reason that Shakespeare wrote this play was so that 400 years later Mrisho Mpoto could make the role his own in the Swahili production from Bitter Pill/The Theatre Company Kenya.
His Falstaff was one that had to be seen to be believed.
Already a considerably large man, his bulk was enhanced with a stomach fat suit. He wore a bright orange shirt and a short fat green tie.
Peeping from between his dreadlocks, his round face alternated between comical lasciviousness when excited and the moroseness of a sad puppy when disappointed.
It was like looking at a cross between Oliver Hardy and Benny Hill.
His brilliant, fast-talking, comic persona came into its element during the farcical scenes when Falstaff visited Mistress Ford at her house, not knowing that his scheme to woo both her and her friend Mistress Page at the same time had been discovered and that he was the target of their revenge.
His blatantly undisguised attraction to Mistress Ford (Lydiah Gitachu) developed into a game with him pretending to be a lion and her, a gazelle. Falstaff panicked when Mistress Page (Chichi Seii) arrived and took a portrait off the wall and held it in front of his face in a crude attempt at camouflage.
Once discovered, he was told to hide in the laundry basket. In a swift, athletic movement he performed a forward roll into the basket, drawing hoots of laughter from the audience.
The audience interaction was only just beginning. The servants ordered to remove the basket found it too heavy to shift, so they brought two men from the yard onstage to help move the basket. These groundlings looked absolutely terrified when Master Ford (James Gathitu) turned up to search for Falstaff and angrily turned on them, talking in Swahili.
Falstaff next appeared drying off with a towel on his head after the basket had been emptied into the Thames with him still inside.
On his second foray to seduce Mistress Ford, her co-conspirator Mistress Page turned up again, obliging Falstaff to hide under a blanket. The fat suit made his attempt at lying flat hilarious. When he tried to shuffle away on all fours, Mistress Page sat on his back as if he were a seat and slapped him when emphasising her words.
This time Falstaff escaped dressed as an elderly aunt in a dress and wig. When Master Ford began his earnest search of the house, he whacked the inside of the basket with a golf club, before chasing and beating the disguised Falstaff.
The comedy of this sequence reached its peak as the stage emptied and the centre doors into the tiring house opened to reveal four British athletes running in slow motion to the Chariots of Fire theme.
Falstaff appeared behind them, also running in slow motion, but gradually overtaking the athletes to indicate the incredible speed of his departure from the Ford household.
The merry wives were sophisticated, well-dressed, urban women, which fitted with the production’s self-declared intention to celebrate “the wit and independence of urban African women”.
Their charm, poise and self-confidence made the clownish Falstaff’s attentions look all the more ridiculous.
Other comic highlights included a scene in which Master Ford feverishly imagined what his supposed unfaithful wife was getting up to in Falstaff’s company, which saw the pair on stage beside him, his wife gyrating seductively while Falstaff sat and lapped it all up.
Praise should also be extended to the versatile Sharon Nanjosi, who played Sir Hugh Evans, Anne Page, Pistol and servant Robert. The touching scene in which Anne showed her true affection for Fenton was an island of sincere romance amid the farcical slapstick.
The duel sequence between her Evans and Caius was truncated. After an initial confrontation, Evans wandered off into yard. The actors called her back by her real name so that Evans and Doctor Caius could shake hands and make up.
Joshua Ogutu doubled Master Page and Mistress Quickly, bringing the comedy of drag to the latter role. Eric Wanyama played Bardolph, Simple and servant John. As well as Mistress Page, Chichi Seii also took the role of the Hostess, at one point calmly presenting two bottles of beer to some groundlings at the foot of the stage.
Ford’s disguise as Brook was particularly hilarious. He wore a shirt tied around his waist, flashing the wallet containing the money he offered to Falstaff to woo his wife to test her chastity.
The funniest doubling, and the most demanding, was that required from Neville Sanganyi, who played all three of Anne Page’s suitors. He portrayed Slender as slightly effete in a yellow jacket; his severe Cauis wore a long white robe and hat; while Anne’s true love Fenton looked sober and restrained in a dark blue shirt.
Towards the end of the play there was an incredibly funny sequence in which the actor playing the suitors had to change between them in quick succession. All three characters had to receive their different instructions about how to spot Anne at the midnight meeting at Herne Oak.
In character as Fenton, the actor paused, and for a while the action came to a standstill. The other actors shouted “Neville!” to remind him that he was supposed to swap characters. Neville donned the yellow jacket to become Slender.
This comical fuss made the costume change easier as it proceeded at a leisurely pace and its obviousness became itself a source of humour, particularly when Neville was again prompted to don the white top to become Caius.
The performance culminated in the final trick played on Falstaff at Herne Oak. In a triumph of hope over experience, Falstaff expected to meet the two women and came dressed in a hat clumsily adorned with small horns.
The others entered behind him wearing masks and began chanting and dancing, before pinching Falstaff like vengeful spirits.
Falstaff was so frightened that he shouted for his mama.
In the confusion, Neville appeared three times to escape with the three “brides” with only his Fenton making off with the real Anne Page.
By the time the couples had emerged from their disguises, Falstaff was sat on the edge of the stage out of breath, fishing for audience sympathy with a crestfallen expression that made him look like a huge baby.
Slender and Caius returned and unveiled their “brides” to reveal that they were both men.
The good-humoured reconciliations and peacemaking drew audience applause, which turned into clapping during the dance at the end.
Even at this late stage, Falstaff remained true to his character. He fetched a female audience member up on stage and took her into the tiring house. They returned after a brief pause, with the lusty Falstaff briefly attempting to follow her back down into the yard.
The cast generously beckoned co-director Daniel Goldman on to the stage for the curtain calls, which was gratifying to see.
A clutch of Swahili speakers in the yard had giggled and laughed all the way through the performance and continued to talk excitedly after it had finished. This was a great endorsement for the production.
A connection has been drawn between The Merry Wives of Windsor and the rise of the English urban middle classes. It is therefore no surprise that African societies experiencing similar urbanisation find that this play speaks to them.