The Merry Wives of Windsor review – belting revenge comedy in modern middle England

<span>Smart comedy … Samantha Spiro (left) and Siubhan Harrison in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Royal Shakespeare theatre.</span><span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan</span>
Smart comedy … Samantha Spiro (left) and Siubhan Harrison in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Royal Shakespeare theatre.Photograph: Manuel Harlan

This lesser-staged Shakespearean revenge comedy has had its fair share of detractors over time, some arguing that it brings the rambunctious figure of Sir John Falstaff back from the Henriad as a paler incarnation of himself, others suggesting its battle of the sexes comedy is less than razor sharp.

So it is all the more surprising that director Blanche McIntyre’s production, Midas-touched and magnificent, makes the story of the two conniving wives of Windsor so fresh that it seems like these characters belong in our world and speak to it too. A line could be traced from the play to TV sitcoms and high quality, modern-day farce. The convolutions of Shakespeare’s plot are smoothed out so the deceptions and sub-deceptions are crystal clear.

Set in modern-day Windsor, it sends up the home counties’ class divisions and snobberies in a similar concept to the RSC’s 2018 modern-dress version but this is funnier and slicker in its satire.

A giant, immaculately trimmed hedgerow on Robert Innes Hopkins’ set tells us we are in the heartland of middle England, along with the front of the Page family’s Yale-alarmed home. The house twirls as if a merry-go-round, mirroring the fairground-ride whirl of the drama, whose scenes switch from middle-class drawing rooms to pubs festooned with the St George’s flag.

Shakespeare’s servant figures wear football jerseys while the wealthy are kitted in tennis outfits, floral combos and chinos with Barbour-style jerkins, and Mrs Quickly (Shazia Nicholls) has a quick, sharp estuary accent.

John Hodgkinson’s Falstaff is not the usual scruffy jovial type who enjoys too much cake and ale but a sophisticated, plus-sized, posh sleazeball in an expensive three-piece suit. He is a horribly brilliant creation, an oily, arrogant and entitled predator.

Richard Goulding also brings a twist to the comically jealous husband Frank Ford, performing him as if in a dramatic role, an Othello figure in his jealous intensity, while simultaneously sending up that “flawed hero” archetype. It is delicately done so that he remains ridiculous but you feel for him too, and there are brief but powerful moments when the drama threatens to tip over into potential tragedy, his eventual penitence for distrusting his wife quietly moving. The play again teeters excellently on this dark tipping point in the ancillary three-way drama of securing a husband for Anne Page (Tara Tijani) – who her parents choose for her as opposed to the man she loves.

But these are potent twinges amid so much smart comedy, from physical to visual, all delicious in its timing, from the minxish gulling of Falstaff by Mistress Ford (Siubhan Harrison) and Mistress Page (Samantha Spiro) to the sending up of cultural stereotypes in the ridiculously French Dr Caius (played like Inspector Clouseau on steroids by Jason Thorpe) and Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans (Ian Hughes, like a knowingly bathetic sitcom character and ticklingly funny).

Even the slimmer parts bring fizzing comedy, from Anne’s overexcited lover, Fenton (John Leader), to her ill-suited suitor, Master Slender (Patrick Walshe McBride).

With abounding silliness, this is a comedy so polished it gleams. A summer belter.