To herald the beginning of their 2013 season, STAG offer Melbourne theatre audiences Shakespeare’s irreverent The Merry Wives of Windsor wherein the world is indeed mine oyster.
This somewhat naughty Shakespeare is more than a teensy – weensy departure from what one might traditionally consider 'A Shakespeare' but therein lies the appeal for director Drew Mason who has long wanted to be involved in a production of this play, so when the opportunity arose, he grabbed it. "I love fact that this play is, essentially, Elizabethan situation comedy," says Mason. " We are taking this approach with our production, even though it is set in the present. We hope to present a real life sitcom on the STAG stage, and to satirise middle class Australian life. I always find it such a pleasure to work on a play by the single greatest writer in the English language, and to share that passion with the others involved. We are having great fun with this one!”
So, John Falstaff (a bludger), staying in Windsor Lakes, finds himself skint and comes up with a bonzer idea to make some quick cash by seducing the wives of two wealthy citizens….this small grab is all that is required to make us understand that this is without doubt a contemporary and very Australian take on a play written around 1597. Mason is quick to point out, however, that it is only the context of the play that has been updated not the text or language.
"The difficulty lies in finding the fine line between the "interpretation" of the text and the text itself," mason explains. "The line I personally felt that Baz Luhrmann crossed with Romeo and Juliet; he pushed the interpretation so far that the essence of the text and language got lost. I am endeavouring to ensure that the story is always at the forefront, especially as this play is not as familiar to audiences as many of Shakespeare's other works."
Allegedly written to appease Queen Elizabeth’s desire to see Falstaff in love, Shakespeare created his only play dealing with contemporary middle class, suburban life. STAG is honouring this aspect of the play by setting it in contemporary Melbourne, in a new, fictional suburb named Windsor Lakes. "It is the only play he wrote that deals with his contemporary English middle classes, and it is believed he actually drew upon actual locations for this play, as well as actual people around him," sates mason. "It is a brilliant satire of middle class life, and we hope to uphold that with our production."
Mason, a self proclaimed Shakespeare nut is fascinated by the fact that Shakespeare pulled characters out of one of his most famous History plays, Henry IV parts one and two, to make them the centre of the comedy in this play. Then there is the legend that Queen Elizabeth loved the character of John Falstaff so much that she asked Shakespeare to write a play where Falstaff falls in love. This is that play, but he certainly does not fall in love….lust maybe…."However," says Mason, "that legend is probably false."
Mason, clearly, does not consider himself a traditionalist when it comes to Shakespeare. "Heavens no!" he declares, when asked the question. "I can always visit a museum, thank you." His view is by maintaining the Elizabethan style of performance, the relevance of Shakespeare's messages and themes is potentially lost, as the audiences don't necessarily relate. "I am not a fan of updating the language of the plays (after all, who can write as well as he can?) but I LOVE LOVE LOVE updated contexts for his settings," he states. "Consider the fact, too, that aside from Merry Wives of Windsor, none of Shakespeare's plays are actually set in Elizabethan or Jacobean England anyway!"
Mason believes that making the Bard of Avon's plays accessible to current audiences is important to keep his works in the forefront of Literature and drama today. "As much as I bag Luhrmann for his R and J, I do appreciate that his movie made the play accessible to a new generation of audiences," he concedes. "We certainly are not going traditional with this play at all. I feel justified in this decision, as I discovered recently that the RSC in London has also done a contemporary take on the play as well."
According to their publicity, STAG has presented several of Shakespeare’s plays recently, including Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and they always seem to be crowd pleasers. Merry Wives has not received many productions in Melbourne in recent years, so it will be good to bring something “new” to local audiences. "Certainly the feeling that they had a great laugh and hopefully gained a greater appreciation for Shakespeare, if they do not already have that," mason says. " I would love it if audiences could find relevance in what Shakespeare has to say about life."
This is the short and the long of it!
The Merry Wives of Windsor plays February 28 – March 2