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*** REVIEW: The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 7th September





Woe betide the sequel that sucks. Specifically designed to disprove the old adage that there’s no such thing as a safe bet, the sequel is a calculated – some might say, cynical – manoeuvre to ensure that as many of the odds as possible are stacked in your favour. If the dice roll wrong all involved are most likely on their uppers and out but more often than not things do work out. Of the top box office draws at the cinema over the past decade for example, only five out of 60 weren’t sequels created on the risk-averse premise that viewers who have already proven themselves enamoured of a certain franchise are likely to come back for more. Of the five originals, Barbie’s sensational success was accounted for, in part, because everyone knew the characters through the dolls so it was new but not new, so to speak. The golden ticket - fresh but familiar.

Samantha Spiro, John Hodgkinson
Samantha Spiro, John Hodgkinson

Many cineasts bemoan the domination of the superhero sequels, Martin Scorsese going so far as declare that they aren’t really films at all but some cheap, modern-age plague upon artistry. But the sequel isn’t a recent phenom. I’m wittering on about this because Merry Wives is a sequel. The main character, Sir John Falstaff, was resurrected from Henry IV, Parts I and II.

The story goes that, just as Queen Elizabeth II let it be known that she considered the stiff-as-a-board actor George Lazenby as her preferred choice to replace the exiting Sean Connery as James Bond – a misstep as he bombed as 007 in, ironically enough, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – so her predecessor in the Liz line, the first good Queen Bess, having enjoyed Shakespeare’s Henry IV, suggested – nay, insisted – that our playwright revive Sir John and do something romantic with him for her amusement. I doubt the bard took much persuading. To decline might have proven perilous – just look what happened to poor Sir Walter Raleigh when he stepped out of line. And the fact is that loveable rogues are near as dammit to a shoo-in. So it’s her ancient madge we have to thank for tonight’s entertainment, a Tudor Better Call Saul to Henry’s Breaking Bad or a post-Plantagenet Frasier to Henry’s Cheers if you will.

John Hodgkinson (lying down), Richard Goulding
John Hodgkinson (lying down), Richard Goulding

John Hodgkinson is the RSC’s third brilliant Sir John in 12 years, lumbering in the mighty shoes of Desmond Barrit (2012) and David Troughton (2018). Hodgkinson plays him as a besuited suave chancer roaming the updated suburban estates for what he assumes are easy pickings in the pair of titular wives who he plans to bed then blackmail. He’s an odious but somewhat adorable rascal, no match whatsoever for Samantha Spiro’s Mistress Page and Siubhan Harrison’s Mistress Ford. These two have got the measure of his mischief and their scheming to bring him to disgrace provides the plays principal pleasure. They’re both terrific fun.



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