Monday, November 24, 2008

Falstaff (2): forever waiting at the station

24 November

"Les joyeuses commères de Windsor" (aka "The Merry Wives of Windsor") is not one of Shakespeare's more original works, though the guy did have a knack for putting a show together. Seen primarily as a vehicle for resurrecting Falstaff (allegedly at the insistence of the Queen, to whom one did not say 'no') it is a bit disappointing: unlike in "Henry IV," where the pathos of Falstaff's downward trajectory, juxtaposed to the upsurgence of the prince, is the stuff of universal drama (see my post of 22/11), the outsized Falstaff is here fitted into a standard comic plot of fickle wives and jealous husbands, where his enormities are just another occasion for low humor. So I wondered what a company as original as the Théâtre du Voyageur would make of this material, and said as much to Chantal Melior before the show. "You'll have to see," she said, sphinx-like, and see I did.

One simple fact is that Chantal's two 'episodes' directly connect in a way that Shakespeare's do not: two hundred years of social history and a change of genre separate Shakespeare's feudal Falstaff from his early modern one. In the Voyageur's episode 2, though, the rather touching conclusion of episode 1 is replayed, verbatim, except that Falstaff, rebuked and abandoned, trudges to the far side of the stage ... and into a boxing ring! There he KO's one, two, three of his erstwhile critics and emerges a winner once more. Later the ring will become a stage where Falstaff's desperate housewife (now known as Mme. de Gaie?), will croon a love-song (in English), Motown style, while the rest of the cast sings back-ups. More choral numbers similarly yank the scene into the present day--but of course that's exactly what Shakespeare did by creating a contemporary bourgeois bedroom farce.

Other interpolations worked less well for me. The English wars of succession break out all over again, just long enough for Falstaff as recruiter to engage in a lot of wordplay (I no doubt missed a lot here), but then the armies seem to get laid off and everyone goes home. On the other hand the fact that the play actually erupts in the bar/waiting area before it officially starts, with Falstaff bellowing and cursing from the stairwell and the cast warming up at the piano, is a wonderful way to launch a sequel. This was particularly effective as half the audience was a group of middle-schoolers (who had seen the first half as I did the night before): not quite knowing what to expect, they were both amazed and a little worried as this enormous and rather unstable-looking fellow was suddenly amongst them, using language they knew one didn't use in polite settings ... but was this a polite setting? Had their teachers brought them by mistake to a bordello? In some ways the uncertainty of that moment set a perfect tone for what followed.

After the instabilities of these preliminary gestures the main plot of "Merry Wives," in which Falstaff's adulterous designs are deceptively encouraged, then foiled in a crescendo of humiliations, goes ahead like a mechanical toy, delightful in its details but finally all too predictable. Falstaff is left on all fours, wearing a ridiculous set of horns (antlers, actually), while the honest burghers of Windsor--that boringly upright bunch--make sport of him. That's as far as Shakespeare takes it: Falstaff realizes his folly, and the romantic subplot (altogether missing from this version) is left to work its charms. 

But in the Voyageur version a wonderful thing happens at just this moment, a gesture with which Chantal Melior has won my heart forever.  Falstaff picks himself up, antlers and all, and returns to the studied nonchalance he tried to assume in the face of Hal's devastating rebuke at the end of episode 1. Turning to his faithless friends he asks--in exactly the words he used last night-- "Who wants to have dinner?" and strolls off as if nothing has happened: no moral lesson, no triumph of bourgeois propriety, no change of heart. For all his faults and follies he is still Falstaff, heavyweight champion of the world, now, tomorrow, forever. Now that's an ending.    

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