The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0991 Tuesday, 7 November 2006
Date: Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Subject: Judi Dench at Stratford
Judi Dench to Star at Stratford
Anyone who regards Shakespeare as a stuffy business must have performed
something of a double-take when, halfway down the RSC's Complete Works
programme, two little words appeared after Merry Wives.
This Christmas, with the Works project in full flow and the traditional
festive production ruled out, the company stages only its second-ever
'The Musical'. And in Dame Judi Dench they've roped one of the
theatrical world's biggest stars into the fun.
Sir John Falstaff is in need of cash and decides to hedge his bets by
courting the wealthy Mistress Ford and Mistress Page at the same time.
But when they compare love-letters and see through the plan - with more
than a little help from Mistress Quickly (Dench) - the riotous knight
gets his just desserts. Along the way, there will be eyebrow-raising
twists, liberties taken with the text and at least one hoe down,
explained associate director Gregory Doran. For him it all started with
a song composer Paul Englishby wrote for a recent production of The
Tamer Tamed, a response to The Taming of the Shrew, called The Woman
Must Wear the Breeches.
Doran said: "I remember we started to think about other plays where
music might play a bigger part. Then we did All's Well that Ends Well
with Judi Dench and she loved Paul's music in that, so the germ of the
idea appeared. Tamer Tamed became the initial inspiration - a sort of
mix of country and western and some softer ballads. Without giving too
much away we are hoping the setting will at first seem quite
traditional, as in Merrie Olde Englande, but with several anarchic twists."
Doran explained how Merry Wives was the perfect candidate for the
makeover. He added: "It was written in two weeks by Shakespeare in
response to a request by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see a play where
Falstaff is in love. This meant it has always been seen as entertainment
as much as a classic play, and therefore lends itself to 'versions' of
"It's also one of the longest comedies and not known for its great
poetry - so in this version there are some scenes which are sung through
with no dialogue at all, for example the Buck Basket scene. Songs have
been added to enhance the comedy or beef up relationships, but whilst
adapting I have noticed there is certainly a lot of the original text left."
For trooper Dame Judi, meanwhile, the whole thing is "just the next job,
really". It's not as if she can't 'do' song and dance - after all she's
been Sally Bowles in Cabaret and was Adriana the last time the RSC went
a bit musical, with Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden's The Comedy of
Errors in 1976. She added: "That's the life of an actor - you can go
from doing Hamlet to a light comedy or musical and it's all in the same
spectrum. You still have to be that character and tell that story. I
remember Hal Prince, who directed me in Cabaret, saying to me 'you
shouldn't have to stop to sing a song in a musical; it should be a
logical step that takes you onto the next stage of the story, not
embroidered on'. I've never forgotten that - I think it's a really good
tip." She felt the unusual version might help hook a younger audience on
Shakespeare, adding: "I know that after we did the musical version of
Comedy of Errors quite a few came back to see other things at the RSC as
a result. It really depends on how well we do it. There is nothing more
off-putting to audiences new to theatre than seeing a bad production -
so we had better make a good job of it!"
RSC debutant Simon Callow will take over from Desmond Barrit in the role
of Falstaff, after the latter suffered a foot injury, it has been
Merry Wives The Musical opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on
December 2, and runs until February 10. Contact the RSC box office on
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