(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/20.  Photo Lucy Tregear as Meg Page, Richard Cordery as Sir John Falstaff and Claire Carrie as Alice Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Old Vic, London, in 2003. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Set for revival at the RSC, this perfectly structured revenge comedy has an earthy vitality that no aristo or scholar could have created

I have a question for those theatrical luminaries (and I’m looking at you Sir Mark and Sir Derek) who doubt the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Do they seriously believe that a capricious aristo such as the Earl of Oxford or a legalistic scholar like Francis Bacon could have written The Merry Wives of Windsor? In case they have forgotten, this brilliant comedy – about to be revived by the RSC – shows the middle classes getting their revenge on a knightly predator, Sir John Falstaff. It could only have been written by someone who understood the intricacies of a close-knit, provincial community.

What strikes me about the play is its quintessential Englishness, and you see this in myriad ways. One is in the earthy vitality of the language. There is a classic example when Anne Page, offered the prospect of marriage to a preposterous Frenchman, says: “Alas, I had rather be set quick i’th’earth / And bowled to death with turnips.” It is an extraordinarily vivid image and one of the play’s rare excursions into verse: 90% of it is in prose. But the language throughout has a localised vigour that stems from a writer steeped in English life. At one point Mistress Ford urges her servants to take the buck-basket containing Falstaff and “carry it among the whisters in Datchet Mead.” The “whisters” were the bleachers of linen who could be seen by any English river bank including the Avon.

That Englishness also takes the form of running gags at the expense of language-mangling foreigners: something today we may find mildly offensive but, if we are honest, a constant strain in English stage, film and TV comedy. In The Merry Wives, Dr Caius is the archetypal funny Frenchman who, invited to join a small, select twosome, blithely announces: “I shall make-a the turd.” Shakespeare, who had a fascination with the Welsh – think of Fluellen and Owen Glendower – here creates a voluble parson, Sir Hugh Evans, finally dismissed by Falstaff as “one that makes fritters of English”. A reminder that even today we use the language as a test of assimilation.

But how to represent this Englishness on stage? Broadly, there are two approaches. One is to treat the play as a realistic slice of Elizabethan life: the other is to find modern equivalents. Terry Hands – who deserves credit for putting the play back on the map and who directed it for the RSC in 1968 and 1975 and at the National in 1995 – and Trevor Nunn who directed it for the RSC in 1979 were both slice-of-life men. From Nunn’s production I remember half-timbered houses, mullioned windows and choirboys playing conkers. But both directors realised that it is the jealous bourgeois, Ford, who drives the play as much as Falstaff. In Hands’s RSC productions Ian Richardson displayed a sustained frenzy that made the jealousy of Othello and Leontes look like very small beer. In Nunn’s version Ben Kingsley exuded a wheezy jollity in the scenes where he accosts Falstaff in disguise, only to let out a manic scream of rage the second the fat knight left the room.

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