Theatre Review: The Merry Wives of the Merchant of Windsor (or Venice)

It’s always great to see Shakespeare getting an airing, and sometimes a bit of dramatic licence and remodelling help the story to obtain a new lease of life. We gender swap, mash-up and attempt to inject new energy into old stories.

Presented by The Raw Shakespeare Project

Reviewed 16/11/2019

It’s always great to see Shakespeare getting an airing, and sometimes a bit of dramatic licence and remodelling help the story to obtain a new lease of life. We gender swap, mash-up and attempt to inject new energy into old stories. Raw Shakespeare has been doing this for some time and the result is always a challenging and new look at the works they are exploring. The Merry Wives of the Merchant of Windsor (or Venice) says it all in the title. You know you are in for a new look at a couple of old favourites.

Yep, removing the subplots tells a different story as is so boldly stated in the director’s notes. However, there is no Director credited (come on, own up!) and removing the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice results in a rather bland performance piece. It lacks the drive and energy given to the play by its original plot themes which dealt with greed, hatred, opposites and prejudices. Merry Wives is a rollicking piece of Elizabethan theatre in its entirety, dealing with marriage, wealth, lies, deceit, society, class and gender issues. It has it all. Cutting out all the other characters except Falstaff, Mistress Ford, Mistress Page and Master Ford left a rather ordinary piece of drama that didn’t ever get off the ground, as all it delivered was a lesson in trickery. I really missed Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet! And the sexual innuendo and sarcasm of the piece in its entirety got lost in the focus to the singular plot of Falstaff’s ill-fated pursuit of Mistress Ford.

Damien White (Morochus and Sir John Falstaff) opened the evening by taking the stage and warming the audience up with his engaging pre-show banter, and set things up for an evening of entertaining theatre. Myf Davis (Antonia) and Christopher Braydon (Bassonia) made a valiant effort to inject some energy into a much-reduced script but they were either having a really bad night or they had not had time to rehearse themselves into a space that they were not used to. Their work was stilted and sometimes teetered on the edge of stopping. A performance rehearsed for an outdoors venue can often suffer when it is brought inside.

Nicole Richardson (Portia) lacked the energy that drives Portia into a relationship with Bassanio. Her non-committal indifference to her other two suitors Morochus (Damien White) and Arragon (Jabez Retallick) made her appear rather girly and giggly, a result of the focus of the characters through the text chosen, I think. I always feel Portia is hard and somewhat indifferent to men until she decides that Bassanio will be a companion worthy of the effort a relationship, as he is strong and determined to win Portia at all costs. Leaving out some core speeches that determine her character from the re-write gives the actor a really hard job to define their character; she lost her feminist edge. Nerissa (Maxine Elizabeth) was the actor who showed the most drive, purpose and understanding of the text in the first piece and therefore injected some humour and purpose into her work.

The performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a little more uplifting than the first half. The four actors were much more connected to the journey of the play they had created, although this piece suffered (as did the first piece) from a distinct lack of understanding of the language, and inability to clearly articulate the text. Some lines were delivered with such alacrity and lack of consonants they became one word and although I know the play well and have a good grasp of Shakespeare, I was left wondering what I had just missed. White’s transformation into Falstaff was a highlight of the evening and the work he and Retallick brought to the beginning of the second half promised a vibrant second half. It was a bit curate’s egg though (good in parts). Mistress Ford (Bianca Vendenberg) and Mistress Page (Shannon Gray) had a lovely working relationship and great character camaraderie, but goodness me a lack of breath control and a lack of diction really became very frustrating as the thoughts were seldom carried through, and were often broken up to the point of being incomprehensible.

Sometimes the job of a critic gives you a dilemma that leaves you sitting with an opinion that will be seen as negative. This is one of those conundrums for me. I think Raw Shakespeare’s ideas and attitudes of bringing Shakespeare to life in a way that gives us an understanding of the journey of certain characters through the play by cherry-picking scenes and text that illuminate their purpose is a really great thing to do. But the end product needs to work theatrically. This means that the actors still need a clear understanding and command of the language of the time. Actors still need the skills to tell the story clearly. Crisp articulation, good breath support and an ability to interpret and understand all the text that is delivered. Sometimes the best way to achieve this is by being involved in a production, which means a constant monitoring of the performance. Keep delivering great ideas, but please continue to develop the skills required to tell the story clearly. There was a little too much ‘acting’ involved and not enough listening and responding truthfully to the journey of the characters.

Keep working and developing new challenges and ways to bring Shakespeare to a wider audience; but you have to perform it to a standard that lets your audience understand the plot and the journey.

Reviewed by Adrian Barnes

This performance was reviewed at the Marion RSL

Venue: Fox Creek Wines, Malpas Road McLaren Vale

Season: November 2 – 22

Duration:  2hours 30 min (approx.)

Tickets: Adult: $22.19 + booking fee, Conc $16.91+ booking fee Child under 12 free

Bookings: https://www.rawshakespeareproject.com.au/

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