It’s funny how two little words can totally alter your perspective of a character. For the last couple of months I have been rehearsing and preparing to play Falstaff in Tower Theatre’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Up until last night – seven performances into the run – I had delivered the words “Time wears” to Mistress Quickly’s departing back in a tone of annoyance that she was failing to get on with an agreed task – namely sourcing and supplying a pair of antlers for Falstaff to don in the final scene of the play. Then last night, for some reason and totally on the spur of the moment, I found myself saying the same words but in a wistful reflective mood as though Falstaff realised his time was nearly up and if he was going to make a success of his life then it was a case of now or never.
Falstaff has been an interesting character to develop. Really my ambition had always been to play the role in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 but beggars can’t be choosers and I guess there’s still time. The overwhelming perception among actors, scholars, critics, etc. is that Falstaff in the history plays is a much more fully realised character and I have to largely agree. The boisterous, guzzling buffoon of Wives is balanced in the Henrys with a strain of concealed sensitivity and real pathos. Whilst in Windsor he is to all intents and purposes a figure of fun that is outwitted by the women in the play and, finally, ritually (and quite savagely) humiliated by the whole town. It’s his own fault, of course, but at last, towards the closing stages we get a glimpse of the sad melancholic figure that Shakespeare originally devised and saying those two words slightly differently finally gave me a way in.
The first three quarters of the play is really an Elizabethan farce which we have played to the hilt by cutting out extraneous action and plotlines, setting the action in the 1950s and introducing key farce tropes, such as copious innuendo, a comedy vicar, various forms of cross dressing, dropped trousers and wily employees outwitting their “betters”. The only thing we don’t seem to have is a French maid with an outrageous accent and a feather duster! I decided pretty early on in rehearsal that I needed to set Falstaff firmly in this world and went for a lamb-chop whiskered, monocle wearing upper class numbskull who regularly goes into outraged bluster mode – to very little effect. Key
“influences” were largely forgotten actor Fred Emney for the look and, of all things, major Dennis Bloodnok from The Goons. The latter, of course, was a serial glutton/alcoholic and lover of money who perpetually deluded himself that all the ladies had an eye for his (non-existent) charms; perfect for Sir John. And here I must publically record a word of thanks to our director Rob Ellis who could not have been more patient with my endless experimentation and “refinements”; he really knows how to “create an atmosphere in which actors can produce their best work” (Alan Ayckbourn)
However, it had remained a source of bother to me that I could not at least hint at the better known Falstaff – perhaps for a brief moment I have now found a way and shall be trying it again tonight. If I’m being brutally honest I suppose the two words also encapsulate how I feel about my own participation in this fast moving stage piece. Intimations of mortality aside, throwing yourself around stage at a furious pace with a generally much younger (and fitter) cast has certainly given pause for thought. At least, touch wood, I’m still in one piece.
So now it’s time to fully enjoy the rest of the run. If you fancy it, we are on for a further four performances at Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington and after this we are taking the whole shebang to Paris performing at an open air theatre on the Bois de Boulogne in the first week in June. I think it will be an interesting challenge performing this very English play (the only comedy Shakespeare set in his native land) to our European comrades. After all when we began rehearsals we didn’t even think that we would be part of Europe by the time of performance but that, as they say, is a whole different kettle of fish. In any event, perhaps better a light comedy/farce that mocks English pretension than, say, Henry V. A tout a l’heure!