Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor

Studio 77 Amphitheatre, 77 Fairlie Tce, Wellington

12/02/2010 - 27/02/2010

Gladstone Vinyard, Wairarapa

04/02/2010 - 06/02/2010

Production Details

Wellington’s favourite summer theatre event, the Summer Shakespeare, returns in its 27th year with a rare chance to see one of the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure of the Bard’s comedies, Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s nearly 50 years since the last full production in Wellington of the play rumoured to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth the First herself – so popular was Shakespeare’s famous drunken knight in his day that the Queen, or so the story goes, asked Will to write a spin-off play that showed Falstaff in love.
Feeling the pinch of the recession, poor Falstaff is reduced to living in a Windsor hotel and downsizing his entourage. It’s the wedding day of Mr and Mrs Ford, and fast-approaching the day that Mr and Mrs Page’s daughter Anne inherits her grandfather’s substantial fortune. While several prospective husbands hope to marry Anne, Falstaff hits on a new money-making venture: he decides to woo both Mrs Page and Mrs Ford at the same time, intending to steal their husbands’ wealth and restore himself to glory. But when both Mrs Page and Mrs Ford get wind of his plans, he becomes their unwilling prank-monkey in a series of increasingly bizarre attempts at seducing them right under the nose of Mrs Ford’s insanely jealous husband. The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous and accessible comedies – it’s a cross between Fawlty Towers, Black Books, Blackadder and your average episode of The Simpsons–only everyone speaks Elizabethan English and at the end a comic Frenchman accidentally marries a boy.
The 2010 Summer Shakespeare sees the return of Victoria University of Wellington as the naming sponsors, renowned director David Lawrence and many of the cast of 2009’s Henry V (“a wild ride […] Lawrence’s cast is totally committed” Lynn Freeman, Capital Times; “As has become the norm, both for Summer Shakespeare and Lawrence-directed classics, a large cast […] delivers the play with great clarity, intelligence, humour and well-directed energy […] a large-cast production of such vitality and overall excellence is unlikely to recur in the foreseeable future”, John Smythe, Theatreview). 

The Summer Shakespeare will be running a special preview season Thursday 4 – Saturday 6 February at Gladstone Vineyard in the Wairarapa.

You can then catch Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor under the stars at the Studio 77 Amphitheatre, 77 Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn from Friday 12 – Saturday 27 February at 7pm.

To book for the Wellington season please go to Downstage Theatre,, phone: 04 801 6946.

For information on the Gladstone season please visit

For more information please visit   or contact

George Page a moderately wealthy citizen Ralph Upton*
Meg Page his wife Louise Burston*
Anne Page their daughter Alice Pearce*
William Page their son Bailey McCormack*
Frank Ford an extremely wealthy citizen Daniel Watterson*
Alice Ford his wife Laura Feslier*
Fenton an impoverished gentleman, in love with Anne Page Blair Everson*
Sir John Falstaff an impoverished knight, lodging at the Garter Inn Benjamin Haddock*
Robin his page Dominic McElwee
Bardolph a thief Tamas Molnar
Pistol a grifter Vicky Roper
Nym a cony-catcher Helen Sims*
The Host of the Garter Inna hotelier Kirsty Bruce*
The Host’s staff Shannon Tubman, Bailey McCormack, Alice Pearce, James Barber, Daniel Watterson
Sir Hugh Evans
a Welsh ParsonMelanie Camp*
Robert Shallow a Justice of the Peace James Barber*
Abraham Slender Shallow’s nephew, in love with Anne Page Michael Pohl*
Peter Simple Slender’s servant Eleanor Stewart*
Dr Caius a French physician, in love with Anne Page Florence Mato
Nell Quickly Dr Caius’ housekeeper Jessica Aaltonen
John Rugby Dr Caius’ servant Ngahiriwa Rauhina
Servants, Townsfolk, Onlookers, Musicians, Fairies, Meatpuppets played by members of the company

Producer Alison Walls*
Designer Rose Morrison
Costume co-ordination Marly Doyle, Lisa Doherty
Production Manager Paul Tozer
Marketing Manager Adrianne Roberts
Stage Manager Manda Smith
Directed by David Lawrence*

* VUW graduate or current student.

3hrs, incl. interval

Fawlty Housewives

Review by Lynn Freeman 18th Feb 2010

The story of the cuckolding of the boorish and rotund Sir John Falstaff is seldom performed, but it’s ideal Summer Shakespeare fare.

Over the top comedy performed at break neck speed is the recipe that tends to work best and that’s certainly the case here. Though at 155 minutes it’s on the long side, especially with the weather proving temperamental.

The cast is huge, another bonus for a Summer Shakespeare production, and unlike many of the Bard’s plays the spotlight is relatively evenly spread. As for the story, think Desperate Housewives meets Fawlty Towers. The lecherous Falstaff tries to seduce two married women but ends up paying a high price for his folly. He’s not the only one cuckolded, with many a sub plot revolving around the marriage of the beautiful and wealthy Anne Page (Alice Pearce).

Lawrence describes Merry Wives as a Renaissance equivalent of an episode of the aforementioned Fawlty Towers and you can sense the actors playing Mr Ford and Mrs Page – Daniel Watterson and Louise Burston – channelling Cleese’s mania rather more than the others.

Benjamin Haddock is rather young and slender to play Falstaff but is an admirable rascal and his final humiliation seems rather too harsh. Stand out performances from Jessica Aaltonen as the quick witted housekeeper Nell and Laura Feslier is an elegant Alice Ford, as well as Ralph Upton as Anne’s father, Helen Sims as the villainous Nym, Kirsty Bruce as the grasping hotelier and James Barber is an assured Robert Shallow, while Melanie Camp shows commendable vocal dexterity as the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans.

Take a cushion and maybe also a brolly, if you’re of a nervous disposition avoid the front row, and have a ball courtesy of this fabulous cast, director and crew. 
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Knight’s quest for wealth full of laughs

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Feb 2010

It is rumoured that Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with Shakespeare’s drunken knight Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays that she asked him to write a play about Falstaff and his love conquests.

Whether she would have recognised Falstaff from David Lawrence’s production is debatable, but from what we know of the Queen she would have certainly enjoyed the over-the-top slapstick humour and physicality of his production of The Merry Wives of Windsor

Written as pure entertainment with no heavy or hidden meaning or insights into the humour condition – “ a crazy sitcom”, as Lawrence calls it in his programme notes – the play lends itself admirably to Lawrence’s style of directing. 

Boisterous, although fortunately not overly bawdy, the production canters along at a fast pace from start to finish, the large cast working exceptionally well as a team moving about with assured confidence, the scenes flowing effortlessly form one to the other, all the cast appearing to enjoy themselves as much as Shakespeare probably did writing it. 

Even if some of the dialogue is rushed over, the physical nature of the production conveys adequately the story of Falstaff (Benjamin Haddock) trying to win the hearts of Mrs Page (Louise Burston) and Mrs Ford (Laura Feslier) in order to get his hands on the wealth of Mr Page (Ralph Upton) and Mr Ford (Daniel Watterson). 

There are also a number of other sub plots running through the play including the more romantic wooing of Anne Page (Alice Pearce) by the hapless Fenton (Blair Everson). Abraham Slender (Michael Pohl), aided by his uncle Robert Shallow (James Barber), and the French physician Dr Caius (Florence Mato) with his housekeeper Nell Quickly (Jessica Aaltonen) in tow, are also trying to win over Anne. 

Overseeing and commenting on much of the action is the Welsh priest Sir Hugh Evans (Melanie Camp). 

While the purists will pine to hear the musicality of the language, and the use of gesture and facial expression is often over done – every line, every word almost, appears to have some physical attribute attached to it – there are nevertheless some genuinely funny moments. Falstaff’s two ignominious departures from the Ford household cases in point. 

It is interesting to note, however, that in the contrasting characterisations of Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, it was the subtle, effective delivery of the lines of Laura Feslier’s Mrs Ford that got as many if not more laughs than the flaying arms and legs portrayal of Louise Burston’s Mrs Page, showing that regardless of what you do with Shakespeare the language is still his greatest asset.


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Comedically satisfying

Review by Maryanne Cathro 14th Feb 2010

John has already reviewed this production in its preview setting of Gladstone Vineyard. It has since relocated to the amphitheatre at Studio 77.

My absence from Wellington for nearly ten years has meant that what may have occurred as evolution to others has taken me by surprise. The Summer Shakespeare productions of the ’80s and ’90s were gargantuan affairs involving teams of production people collaborating to wow audiences. These productions would play to hundreds every night. Thus it was a bit surprising to rock up to this venue that holds maybe eighty, tops.

Admittedly, this means that we actually hear everything happening on stage and the combination of intimacy and the outdoor setting is refreshing. I do wonder though what has changed – is it audience or thespian interest that has waned, or is it a case of one feeding off the other? Am I being nostalgic and not moving with the times, or have we lost something of real value here?

But I digress.

We arrive at the amphitheatre to find a wedding party in full swing. Frank and Alice Ford are off having their photos done one presumes, and their families and friends are ensuring the guests are made welcome. Lovely touch. I immediately try to work out what the ‘take’ is going to be – no-one does Shakespeare 16th century style so there has to be some kind of theme. I am thinking – 1950’s? 1960’s maybe? Costumes are from every era of the last 50 years. Why? Is this intentional or do they just not have a clue? I hastily apply benefit of the doubt and settle into the show.

It is interval before I read the Director’s note and the whole thing clunks into place for me. This show is a David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd sitcom or maybe a farce in the great British tradition, where slapstick, mistaken identity and coarse acting are the name of the game. And indeed, the play is just that. None of your higher themes or serious plot threaded with the humorous one here. It sits in a continuum of ribald British comedy that succeeds The Canterbury Tales and precedes The Country Wife right through to the Carry On movies, No Sex Please, We’re British and Blackadder.

With this revelation in mind, I started to enjoy some parts more and other parts less. I wanted to see stronger use of the possibilities this genre allowed for. Why not a hotelier who’s a sassy Bet Lynch or a René Artois? I wanted to see Nell Quickly (Jessica Aaltonen) embrace the physicality of the 1960’s instead of striding around in sneakers like a boy. I fall more in love with Daniel Watterson’s Frank Ford who pays tribute to Basil Fawlty without giving up his own interpretation of the part.

I adore the rabble of villagers adorned in every outfit from tennis player, baker, person interrupted from their bath, French mime etc.; every one completely in their chosen character. All it needs was a French maid and a nun! Yet for the same reason I want the Germans not in earnest, matching khaki, but in lederhosen with a big curly moustache, and a dirndl with big buns over the ears. In other words, I want more, not less, of the farce.

I wish that the production values were stronger to support a cast that worked the space like there was no tomorrow. The show is swept up in their energy and fizz, and the dizzy pace, lightning set changes and great use of physical comedy and indeed the space itself, do a lot to keep the audience involved and not sidetracked by what might be missing.

Given that the production began before the play and the cast entertains us in the interval with live music, I’d also love to see a curtain call with the same joie de vivre – music played, maybe some dancing either spontaneous or choreographed. The cast certainly deserves their applause and would get a lot more, I feel, if they had the means to milk the moment.

We leave feeling comedically satisfied rather than intellectually challenged, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. A great time was had by all.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


Maryanne Cathro February 17th, 2010

Hi Bill, thanks for the information. Was there a reason why the rising scale was a concern to the Trust? I'm interested in what motivated the change, not critical of it. I do miss the big productions, but I do like the improvement to audability. And I do love the ampitheatre at 77, it is very atmospheric. But I am also one of those passionate Shakespeare lovers who wants the whole world to embrace the Bard and get a chance to see a big production from time to time on a scale that our professional theatres could never afford. I've taken plenty of people who have never been to any theatre to a summer shakespeare and they have enjoyed it. It is a great institution!

Bill Sheat February 17th, 2010

Maryanne Cathro comments on the apparent scaling down of Summer Shakespeare compared to what she recalls from ten years ago.  Several years ago the Summer Shakespeare Trust became concerned that the productions were growing in scale and has encouraged directors to think small.The outdoor setting at Number 77 holds 100 - 150 depending on the configuration. The choice of venue is entirely up to the director. It does not have to be No.77.One advantage that No 77 has over other venues is that there is a wet weather venue on the site. Shifting across town to a wet weather venue a couple of hours before curtain time is a real hassle.

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I want to get it, not duck it

Review by John Smythe 08th Feb 2010

Scholars have it that Queen Elizabeth I demanded a play about Falstaff in love after seeing him in Henry IV Part 1 (1596). The result, initially entitled Sir John Falstaff and The Merry Wives of Windsor (and probably much shorter than what we now know as The Merry Wives of Windsor), is first believed to have been performed for the Queen at the Garter Feast in April 1597, before the errant knight returned to be rejected by Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 2 (1598) then was killed off in absentia in Henry V (1598), which was last year’s VUW Summer Shakespeare. 

Despite being hugely popular in its time (if the seven quarto editions published before the first folio are anything to go by), the full three-hour play – as performed for this year’s VUW Summer Shakespeare – cannot be said to be one of William Shakespeare’s more profoundly insightful comedies.

Presumably its initial purpose was to amuse her majesty with a light-hearted tale of how the foolish Sir John Falstaff, fallen on hard times, simultaneously tries to woo two rich wives – Meg Page and Alice Ford – and gets his come-uppance, while the course of true love is finally allowed for Mistress Anne Page and the impoverished Fenton (whose scenes, incidentally, are the only ones in blank verse). The longer play adds – among other things – the complication of two other suitors for Anne, with George and Meg Page championing the causes of the twittish Abraham Slender and the French physician Dr Caius, respectively.  

The result is rather patchy. The gulling of Falstaff in the climactic Herne’s oak scene lacks the dramatic impact or poignancy offered when similar fates befall Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Parolles (All’s Well that Ends Well) and Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The lovers’ scenes are so few and brief that they cannot hope to engage as the Athenians do in the Dream. And the comic carry-on is not offset by matters of greater dramatic import, as in those other comedies, where quests unachieved may result in death, for example, let alone the war-faring drama of the Henry histories.

That said, as we have come to expect in a David Lawrence-directed Shakespeare, the large cast brings great commitment, energy, clarity and fun to this production, presented in modern dress so that Falstaff’s sudden loss of fortune may be related to the recession, etc. But at the final of three previews at Gladstone Vineyard in the Wairarapa – a splendid setting for it – the pursuit of love and its comic consequences were thrown severely out of whack by some desperately coarse acting.

Those who draw their comedy from truth in their well-grounded characterisations include Laura Feslier (Alice Ford), Alice Pearce (Anne Page), Ralph Upton (George Page), Melanie Camp (the Welsh parson Sir High Evans), Florence Mato (the French physician Dr Caius) and – most of the time – Jessica Aaltonen (Nell Quickly).  

As the broader comic characters Robin (Falstaff’s page), Bardolf (a thief), Pistol (a grafter) and Nym (a cony-catcher), Dominic McElwee, Tamas Molnar, Vicky Roper and Helen Sims respectively acquit themselves with distinction. Apart from a voice that sounds too young and sober, rather than irreparably pickled in ‘sack’, Benjamin Haddock’s Falstaff is fine although he could display more of the boorish hyper confidence usually associated with the role.

What distorts the production badly for me is Louise Burston’s Meg Page and Daniel Watterson’s Frank Ford, who disguises himself as a wealthy gent named Brook in order to expose Falstaff and his supposedly unfaithful wife. I can’t see the characters for the acting. They are either showing off, or they think we are thick and need it all spelled out, or both. I want to get it, not duck it.  

Some of the others – e.g. Aaltonen’s Mistress Quickly and Kirsty Bruce’s Host of the Garter Inn – show signs of aspiring to this level of coarse acting, which gives me even more reason to challenge it.   

The set design has yet to be seen (in the Wellington season) but the costumes – co-ordinated by Marly Doyle and Lisa Doherty – range from splendidly appropriate to strangely idiosyncratic, as if half the cast had got waylaid en route to the Sevens.

The ensemble acting is excellent, as is the singing – with added extras in the interval – and overall we have another example of an energetic young cast thrilling to the delights of Shakespeare. Long may it continue.
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biggles February 10th, 2010

John, thanks for your response.  We are coming at this from two different perspectives.  You, as a critic, have found areas that could be improved.  I, as an audience member, am asserting the play is nevertheless very much a lot of fun, good value and a good nights entertainment, as is.  That's how my wife and I found it, friends that we went with laughed more frequently and louder than we did and that's how I strongly perceived (and heard) the audiences' reaction at Gladstone.  Some of your comments (e.g. "severely out of whack" and "distorts the production badly") seemed, to me, to overwhelm the more positive aspects of your review and moved me to post, because we had a very good night out.

Fair enough; I understand your criticism and some of the cast may get some value and inspiration from your critique.  If the play is improved as a result then all to the good.

But I'm still moved to chuckle, remembering the many witty sight gags the production added to the play, and I'd happily see it again, as is.  I hope others won't be put off by the review.

John Smythe February 9th, 2010

The entertainment value of a comedy this long would be vastly improved if we willingly suspended our disbelief in the characters and their situations, so that we could recognise, relate to and even empathise with their desires, concerns, fears, etc. That’s basic.  

A ‘life of the party’ carouser who thinks he can exploit the wives of rich husbands to fund his sybaritic lifestyle; the wives who detect his game and strategise to give him his comeuppance; one husband who loves the entertainment of it while the other’s jealousy and distrust makes him mount his own stratagem; a young heiress in love with one man while each parent tries to foist another on her … All that is great grist to the comedy mill.

This cast is eminently capable of finding the truth in their characters and scenes, and many of them do. Others block our access to the potentially more rewarding comic dimensions by distracting us with their cleverness, which undermines the whole. There is a world of difference between 'being' a character and 'doing' one.

I have every hope it will all come together in the VUW Studio 77 Amphitheatre season. Meanwhile my critique should be taken as a mark of the respect I have for the talent and commitment of the whole team: they deserve more than a patronising pat on the head.

biggles February 8th, 2010

Is it worth seeing?  Is it good entertainment?  Ask that of the audience at Gladstone and, based on the response during the play, the comments during interval and the smiles all round, it's a no brainer.  This is a lot of fun. 

As Smythe states, this "cannot be said to be one of William Shakespeare's more profoundly insightful comedies".  So, true, if you want insight go read the Economist or your psychoanalysts report, or see a "serious" play.  I didn't get a lot of insight, but I had a lot of laughs and a great nights entertainment.

It's hammed up by director and cast for all it's worth.  Which seems to be a problem for Smythe.  Ah yes, Royal Shakespeare might have done it differently. 

But this has the usual energy, youthful wit and point of difference that Victoria Summer Shakespeare always delivers.  Go see, if your idea of theatre is to enjoy yourself and have a great nights entertainment.

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