As I mentioned a few weeks ago, one of my research projects at the moment is an investigation of the work of Edgar Innes Fripp, many of whose papers are in the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford upon Avon. On a recent visit one of the posters in the reading room caught my eye, and I thought I’d share it with you.
It’s for a 1987 production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Bill Alexander, and starring Peter Jeffrey as Falstaff. (As a side note, glance down the cast list shows that Oliver Ford Davies played Sir Hugh Evans – I would like to have seen that piece of character acting.) As you can see from the poster, the production was still set in Windsor (indicated by the castle and flag), but the Windsor of the mid twentieth century rather than the late sixteenth century, when it was written, or the early fifteenth century, when it is nominally set. A contemporary review of this production narrows down the setting further:
What Bill Alexander’s production achieves, with no small help from Jeremy Sams’s music and William Dudley’s centrepiece of dangling period signs, is the atmosphere of 1950s British film comedies.
There is nothing particularly unusual about that – setting productions of Shakespeare in alternative times and places has been a staple of British theatre for at least fifty years, and the practice stretches back at least fifty years before that. The Tempest in space, or Romeo and Juliet amongst New York gangs are only two of the most famous transpositions in a long series of time and place changes. This poster caught my attention because of its bold design, but it was the work being done by the shift of time period and genre which delighted me.
It was funny and inventive to shift Shakespeare’s comedy to a 1950s setting, and recast it as a film comedy, but it also seemed appropriate. A good re-setting of Shakespeare should set up a fruitful dialectic between the text and the new location. Perhaps it would be better to say that the a tension should be established between the ideas and associations which cluster around the play by Shakespeare – which would include his time period, the genre of the work, the internal time period of the narrative and the notion of Shakespeare’s place in contemporary culture – and the associations invoked by the new setting.
H.R. Coursen criticised the re-setting of Richard III in the Fascist 1930s by Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen, on the grounds that it revealed to us nothing about either the play or early twentieth-century Fascism. To him the film simply crashed two very different periods, aesthetics and narrative logics into each other, without either challenging or extending our understanding of the other. It was a gimmick rather than a creative act, because it failed to set up the tension I’m suggesting – the audience (in his opinion) ended the film still thinking exactly the same things about the play and the Second World War.
In the case of the Merry Wives of Windsor, that dialectic was instantly established, as I began to mentally connect the elements on the poster with the elements of the play they were reinterpreting. The “meaning” of Windsor today and then, as a royal castle built after the conquest, and later as the seat from which the current royal family took its name when it changed from Saxe-Coburg. The implications of the style of house depicted in the background, as either/both the houses of a Tudor town with their beams and plaster, and the “stockbroker Tudor” imitations favoured in the county today.
The central figure of Falstaff took me aback – this resetting of the character did illuminate aspects of the play I hadn’t picked out before. This Falstaff looked like a rather out-of-date chancer, whose friends called him by his military rank long after the war ended, who made great use of quotations from the Classics picked up during his education, who preferred to hang around with women he felt were slightly his social inferiors, who felt entitled to people’s indulgence because he was “such a character”. Touchy about people’s opinion of him. Never paid his bills on time. Best way to contact him was by dropping a note into a pub with a rather grotty reputation. And that, of course, is more or less exactly who Falstaff is, but I had never thought of him in quite those terms before.
There were other aspects of the play which suddenly clicked into focus as well. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page’s status as smartly-dressed housewives whom Falstaff imagined would be bored and seducible. The class implications of one subplot hinging on them not doing their own laundry, but having another woman come to collect it. Their outraged amusement at his combination of lechery and condescension, as well as their instinct for revenge on all the men who regarded them as smart possessions. The use of folk customs and “county beliefs” to construct the final farce. The whole feel of the play as a post-war comedy, with the colliding snobberies of new affluence and the “Captain” in civilian life, and character’s vested interests in leaving the past behind or capitalising on its remnants.
Much of this, of course, I technically knew, or could have worked on a purely intellectual level. But seeing this poster brought home the cultural and instinctive meanings of these aspects of the play – and more than that, it made them seem part of an emotional and logical whole, relating Falstaff’s hat to the laundry basket, and the castle to the sex plot, in a deeply satisfying way. It produced connections across time which were illuminating by how far and how near they were to each other simultaneously. And I’ve never even seen the production…!