Of the 37 plays being performed during the Globe-to-Globe season, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the one most saturated in ‘Merrie England’ pastoral nostalgia. Certainly, Christopher Luscombe’s 2008 Globe production of the play and 2010 revival, great fun though it was, did little to shift an image of Elizabethan picturesque. Merry Wives has not been subject to anything like the number of theatrical re-workings as the ‘big guns’ of the canon. While it felt a long way from Merrie England, this Swahili production by UK-based Bitter Pill and The Theatre Company, Kenya, stuck to fairly conventional, recognisable means of attracting laughs – physical comedy, camp innuendo, sly winks at the audience and participatory elements with audience plants. Cast members noted in an interview for the Globe that metatheatrical complicity between actors and audience is not a common convention in Kenyan theatre, so it will be interesting to see how it plays in the upcoming tour of East Africa.
This zesty, youthful production employed modern dress and minimal set, placing the focus squarely on the shoulders of eight actors who performed twenty roles, drawing appreciative applause in response to a few deft on-stage character changes. The production evidently involved translations at the rehearsal stage: actor and writer Joshua Ogutu translated the play into Swahili, but neither of the directors, Daniel Goldman (of UK company Tangram Theatre) and Sarah Norman (the Zimbabwean Artistic Director of Bitter Pill), speaks the language. But this isn’t Norman’s first foray into an African Merry Wives – her London production, in English with a Zimbabwean cast, was performed in 2009.
For a play about the jealous guarding of marital property, Merry Wives is striking for the centrality of its women and particularly for the power the wives exert. But it’s impossible to get past the fact that the blustering, larger-than-life character around whom everything revolves is Shakespeare’s most famous knight, Sir John Falstaff. Theatrically, there is plenty of scope for Falstaff to upstage the wives, even as they outsmart him at every turn. In this production, Mrisho Mpoto, in a garish purple shirt, lime green cravat and outrageous fat-suit, drew immediate recognition and a wave of applause upon his first entry onto the Globe stage. Mpoto’s Falstaff was crowd-pleasing and benign, with little hint of grotesquerie, much less a predatory threat. What was especially striking was the actor’s youth – this fat knight sported black dreadlocks and a smooth, smiling face, his libidinous energy more that of a panting puppy than a lecherous rogue. He even sobbed like a child in response to his unceremonious dumping in the river, and later as he was pinched and tormented by masked ‘fairies’. His sulky dejection when his gullibility was unveiled elicited a sympathetic ‘awww’ from the audience.
This is not to say that the wives didn’t also have the audience on side. As Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, Lydiah Gitachu and Chichi Seii were feisty, sexy and in complete command; their beautyand Falstaff’s weak-kneed response to it meant that his economic motivation for wooing them was sidelined.
In contrast to these indomitable women was a series of camp characterisations by several of the men: a preening Slender (Neville Sanganyi, who hilariously played all three of Anne Page’s suitors), Master Ford as an effete Master Brook (James Gathitu), whose disguise consisted of a shirt knotted to suggestively reveal his midriff, and Mistress Quickly (a cross-dressing turn by Joshua Ogutu). The actors’ exaggerated, mincing mannerisms, reaching a climax at the denouement when Sanganyi appeared in a flouncy white wedding gown and then a green satin dress, tapped into the pantomime-drag tradition of English comedy, clearly familiar to a London audience. The gender games went both ways, with Evans played by a woman (Sharon Nanjosi, who also played Anne Page, Pistol and Robert) as a rather wimpy figure. Easy laughs aside, the fact that masculinity became a camp caricature in this women-led farce is a significant aspect of its gender politics, especially in the context of the upcoming East African tour to nations, including Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal.
The production ended with a song that incorporated elements of African dance, and in which Falstaff, arms and legs flailing, was the centrepiece. The final moment also belonged to him, as he plucked a woman from the yard and escorted her off stage. A wry observation from an audience member next to me hit the nail on the head: ‘so much for mending his ways’.
Dr. Emma Cox
Lecturer in Drama and Theatre
Royal Holloway, University of London