Thursday, 15 August 2013

A gathering of merry wives

I was really disappointed when the weather forecast changed. We'd been promised a fair day, but by afternoon Environment Canada was threatening us with showers and yet another thunderstorm. It was our one opportunity to see A Company of Fools' production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It's not ending until this Saturday, but the other parks are rather out of our reach for an evening's entertainment.

The thing is, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the few Shakespearean plays that I've neither seen nor read, and this summer, we had the opportunity to see it twice. Here's a snippet of a recent production at London's Globe Theatre, done in Elizabethan costume. (Although John Falstaff is a dramatic contemporary of Henry V, MWoW is set in the England of Shakespeare's time.)

In Victoria, we saw the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival's version for this summer, which is set in the Interior of British Columbia (somewhere near Salmon Arm, I think) in 1972.
So we were treated to polyester, sideburns and such early seventies ditties such as "Sweet City Woman". (There were much better songs, but I can't remember what they were.) There was also a real motorcycle. It was quite fun. This is the first GVSF production to be performed in Na’tsa’maht which is Salish for "The Gathering Place".
It's designed to look like a Salish hat.
We sat in the risers of this extraordinary theatre-in-the-round on a mid-July summer's evening listening to Shakespeare performed by a company which draws their actors from the community, the University of Victoria's theatre programme and some visiting professionals. Through the openings in the sides of Na’tsa’maht, I could see a full Buck Moon rising like a peach beyond the Garry Oaks (if peaches actually could rise). There are worse ways to move into twilight.

Forward to another evening in August and I've been hauled back to Hades again and a Company of Fools is one of the few things that make that tolerable for me. We made our way to Strathcona Park with our folding chairs and umbrellas, wondering how the heck we were going to put up umbrellas with people sitting behind us. The clouds rolled in, tumbled over our heads and piled on the far side of the Rideau River, looking like a range of Mount Kilimanjaros.

And that's, thank heavens, where they stayed put, while one of the largest casts I've seen for a Company of Fools' production (six! six whole actors! -- and three puppets) told the story of how conniving Sir John Falstaff is outwitted by a pair of middle-class housewives. The scene changes were managed with snatches of song (I recognised Faure's Pavane for a Dead Princess)and a moveable door in the same shades of pastel as the costumes which were quasi-Edwardian. The door also doubled as a table-top, just as the performers doubled up on roles by quickly removing and adding layers of clothes (with the occasional hat or wig change). Of course, in the Fools' tradition, unsuspecting (and sometimes suspecting) audience members found themselves pulled from the audience: two burly fellows faced with the task of carrying off a laundry basket with the very burly Falstaff inside, and a half-dozen eager young "fairies" dashing in to circle and pinch the hapless knight at the end.

How did the two productions compare? Well, the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, as I've said, gets its performers from a wide range of places, resulting in a wide range of experience and talent. They tend to tackle the plays very much as they appear in written form, although the times and settings are often very imaginative (Julius Caesar in eighties punk; Hamlet as a woman, etc.) The Fools, by contrast, usually present a play in about ninety minutes, stripping it down to essentials and using four to six actors. Their productions are deliberately accessible and meant to appeal to both young children as well as the more sophisticated. (I like to think I'm in the latter group, but self-delusion is my middle name.)

In short, I was amused by the Merry Wives of Na’tsa’maht, and enchanted by the Merry Wives of Strathcona Park. I'm grateful to the company of the Greater Victoria Summer Shakespeare Festival, and a Company of Fools for introducing TMWoW into my mental repertory of Shakespeare's plays.


JoeinVegas said...

Nice to be able to compare two versions like that!

libragal said...

Glad you enjoyed our Foolish production and also that you recognized the Pavane! Our musical director will be very pleased. Thank you for coming to the show and for taking the time to blog so thoughtfully about it.

Rob said...

I encountered the Verdi opera (Falstaff) first, then read the play afterwards. Both great fun. I like the look of the Globe production: I'd love to see something there.