This is Not a Review: Les joyeuses commères de Windsor

In early 2010 I took a brief sabbatical and did a bunch of travelling; one of my destinations was Paris, where I lived for 5 weeks in a tiny studio in the Latin Quarter. I saw a lot of things I’d previously only read and dreamed about, including a show at the Comedie Francaise.

The Comédie is essentially France’s national theatre; the company has been in existence, housed in the Palais Royal at the centre of Paris, since the 17th century. Seeing a show on the main stage in Salle Richelieu is kind of like going to the Globe in London; granted, they don’t recreate the whole period experience at the Comédie, and they do all kinds of theatre there from classical to avant-garde…but the physical building is a reconstruction (itself dating from 1900) of the space as it was back in the 1680s, and the weight of centuries of theatre tradition is definitely still in the air.

My original intent was actually to see a Molière comedy, for the sheer historical thrill of it and the fact that it doesn’t get any more “classical French theatre” than that, but Le malade imaginaire was sold out for the forseeable future, so instead I got a ticket for Les joyeuses commères de Windsor, which is to say The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Shakespeare translated into French…I honestly had no idea what to expect.

Language-wise, I found that I could follow more or less, but I know I missed a lot. One reason for this (apart from my French just being rusty, which it is!) was that the director chose to have many of the characters speak with accents – Russian (Doctor Caius), Flemish, Spanish and various French dialects that I couldn’t distinguish between. I liked the diversity of it, and it felt right for the boisterous, lowbrow tavern setting… but it was a challenge for the ear!

The opening sequence was pure magic. The lights went to full black, and then the woman playing (what we later learned was) a sort of Fool character entered via one of the side aisles with a lantern. She stood there peering into the darkness, the flickering light of the lantern throwing weird shadows on her face, and then she started to chuckle knowingly. As her chuckle grew to laughter, we heard other voices start to join in… and on stage (where the curtain had risen in the dark without us noticing), a candle flame sprang to life, and then another and another, and we saw that the laughter, spreading from person to person like the flickering light of the candles, belonged to a group of friends who were gathered round a table in a tavern. We caught glimpses by firelight, like a shadow play, of men and women and maybe other creatures… was that a human body with a stag’s head? As the light grew the scene became less otherworldly, the laughter got louder, the group broke into song (and we saw that it was actually just a man holding a stag’s head like a hunting trophy, which he quickly put aside).All this established the framing device, which was that Falstaff was telling the story of the Merry Wives of Windsor to his friends at the tavern. They started by taking roles to help him act it out, but over the course of the first couple of scenes they gradually became the characters they were playing, no longer returning to the “real world” of the framing device. The play-within-the-play was never entirely abandoned, though; no matter what was going on at any given moment, other characters (who were not “in” the scene) were at the edges of the action, just watching, like a second layer of audience. One young man (later Fenton, the ingenue’s love interest), first seen in the opening tavern scene standing on a chair to recite a poem but quickly shouted down in favour of Falstaff’s tale, spent most of the rest of the play sitting off to the side with a large book, a candle and a feather quill, apparently writing down the goings-on as they happened. Since the poem he tried to recite off the top was “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more…” I think we were supposed to assume he was Will Shakespeare, writing the play that we were seeing… very metatheatrical I guess, which sometimes I find twee and annoying, but this was quite subtle, only there for those who might notice, so I didn’t mind it; in fact I found the self-consciousness of it kind of fascinating.

The watchers also provided sound effects on occasion – bird noises, wind rushing, etc. – and two of the ladies who played servant girls played incidental music on the lute and the triangle. In the Genius Sound Design Idea category: the servant girls also periodically brought out large trays of wine glasses filled with water (which, thanks to the initial tavern set-up, seemed less incongruous than it might otherwise have done), which they played through certain scenes by running their fingers along the rims of the glasses. It created a soundscape that wasn’t at all intrusive, and wasn’t jarringly anachronistic the way canned music would have been, but that lent everything an ethereal, otherworldly tinge that was like the aural equivalent of the slightly spooky, mysterious candlelit beginning, and a marked contrast to the earthy bawdiness of the rest of the show. So simple, and so brilliant. It made for cool visuals too, because the wineglasses and the water glinted silver in the lights…so pretty.When Falstaff first started telling his story, all the actors brought their candles (which they had “lit” one after the other when the show began) downstage and placed them in a line across the front, like footlights…where they remained throughout the show, flickering realistically. Candlelight was kind of a recurring visual motif, actually: many of the characters carried candles at one point or another, and it really helped to create the period atmosphere, and to maintain the sense of mystery and the merest hint of menace re. what might be lurking in the dark beyond the firelight.We were definitely given the impression that there was something out there, as throughout the show the forest outside the tavern gradually encroached farther and farther onto the set. The play started within wooden walls, but at the point where the two Wives made their dramatic first entrance, a huge tree (stylized, two-dimensional, very stark-looking) flew in from above and rooted itself in the ground, accompanied by loud creaking and clanging-of-machinery sounds.  This happened several more times throughout the play, each time more dramatically than before. The noise effect was interesting; it was as if the design team had said to themselves “there’s no way this is going to look anything but clumsy and unrealistic – no way to make it in any way magical – so let’s go to the other extreme and magnify the sounds of pulleys and gears grinding etc.” The characters on stage reacted as one might to thunder – definitely acknowledging that these huge objects were falling from the sky, getting out of the way etc. but otherwise not seeming to find anything out of the ordinary. But with the sound effects (the only canned sound  we heard in the show that I can remember) and lighting, the overall effect was eerie and vaguely menacing, but also exciting, a sign that things were happening, strange things that were somehow outside of all the silliness surrounding Falstaff and the merry wives and their husbands.  By the end of the play, the tavern set was gone entirely and five massive trees had flown in. It was a very cool cumulative effect.

I had forgotten that the play actually ends in the forest, where the wives trick Falstaff into venturing out to meet them by Herne’s Oak, disguised as Herne the Hunter (and thus the fleeting stag’s head reference in the first few seconds of the show gets its payoff in the last scene). Then the wives and their husbands and other characters dress up as fairies and forest spirits and other weird creatures who take Falstaff to task for blaspheming against their master, frightening him into groveling before them – his humiliation their revenge on him for double-timing them. This was when all the small otherworldly touches – the candles, the water-glass music – and the not-so-small supernatural elements (the trees) – that had been scattered throughout the play got an amazing payoff.  All the characters emerged from among the trees in full fancy-dress… some as fairies  with lovely gauzy wings, some as animals, but all barely recognizable as themselves (except for the main four, of course). As they all greeted each  other and cavorted gleefully about in anticipation of the joke they were about to play on Falstaff, one of the fairies (the one played by the ingenue, Miss Anne Page) even rose into the air, fluttering on her gossamer wings, and hovered above Falstaff’s head when he entered, scattering fairy dust that caught the light and glittered as it fell. She looked like a Victorian-era Peaseblossom or an Edwardian Tinkerbell…no attempt to hide the wires or make us believe that she was “really” flying, it was very consciously performed (because the characters themselves were performing the make-believe for Falstaff)…but it was still a gorgeous visual.

This whole ending sequence was fascinating to me from a staging/thematic perspective, because it could so easily have felt like a bizarre, out-of-nowhere change of tone, after the bawdy earthiness of the action up to that point – except that the seeds of that final scene had been sown throughout the show, right from the Fool’s mysterious, knowing laughter and the shadowy glimpse of the stag’s head in the very first moments, the water-glass music and the slowly encroaching forest. It made me want to go look up the play, because I wondered how much of that Forest/Wild/Otherworld/liminal/magical theme is in the text, and how much of it was a concept developed by the director and the design team. Either way, I loved it.

Huh. I seem to have gone on at even greater length than I normally do about staging, design etc. – I think this is because I don’t know the text well and, because of the language barrier, was only following it at surface level. So I don’t have thoughts or reactions to the story or the script…but on the other hand it seems to have made me more observant than I normally am about themes that were expressed visually!

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