In the RSC’s latest production, director Fiona Laird is putting a contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s hilarious comedy about suburban middle-class wives and over-inflated egos.
I spoke to Fiona about her adaptation and how she is giving it a modern twist. “We are going for a bit of a TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex) vibe,” she explained. “When I was thinking about this play I realised it is very unusual for numerous reasons. It is the only Shakespeare play set in England in his time that wasn’t a history play, and it’s very much a social comedy. The beating heart of the play is that it is Elizabethan so I didn’t want to completely turn my back on that, but I wanted to set it in a world that people recognise.”
Telling the story of Sir John Falstaff, an upper-class man who is short on money and attempts to fool the women by exploiting them and ripping them off. “The women have the upper hand, and it is a play about women’s friendship and really strong sassy women, and a very recognisable world that is not aristocratic,” she said. “Essex as a brand has been around for a lot longer then TOWIE, which is why TOWIE is made as it has a really strong identity. In the show, this aristocratic man goes there and thinks they’re stupid and in fact, they are not. The women in TOWIE are brilliant and take no shit from anyone.”
“It’s wonderfully about women and the women are so strong and brilliant. It couldn’t be more pro-women if it tried, it really is a Shakespearean feminist triumph.”
It isn’t just the style of character Fiona is inspired by, but the bright colour palette of TOWIE is a huge influence in the play. “We have Lez Brotherston doing the design for the production and he is just brilliant,” she said. “He has done all of Matthew Bourne’s work and it’s so beautiful. He is so clever at costume and one of the things about the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage is that you can’t really put any set on it because it has all the audience on three sides so really I wanted a designer that was going to excel at costume and have real fun with that.”
Fiona has seen the production a few times, but never one directed by a woman, and she feels she can put a real spin on it. Having never seen a production directed by a woman, she believes she takes the female characters a lot more seriously. “The character of Anne Page, the daughter who gets married off, is usually really undercast,” she explained. “I’ve worked really hard with Karen Fishwick who is playing the role and we are making quite a lot of that character.”
“I want young women to come and see it and I want them to see characters they recognise instead of just lots of men.”
Fiona’s feminist view on the production is refreshing and she aims to create a show that appeals to a wider audience. “How many times have you sat in a theatre and thought ‘women don’t behave like that?’ How many times have you sat in the theatre and thought ‘I don’t care about that man, I just don’t care, I want to hear my stories and stories about my friends?’ Fiona explained. “There has to be some forward movement in getting some representation. Most plays are written by men, that is changing as lots of good theatre companies are encouraging new writing by women, so it will change, but we have to keep pushing.”
Working really hard to maintain the beauty of the original but bringing the story forward into today’s society, Fiona really believes this is how we are going to engage young people with Shakespeare, and the theatre itself. “If a young person sat and watched a Shakespeare play I’d directed and thought ‘Oh god please can this just end,’ then I’d feel like I’d failed,” she said. “It has to be funny, Shakespeare’s plays are about people and he really understands the ridiculousness of humanity.”
Having founded the charity The National Youth Arts Trust which was created in order to support young people without the income to pursue their passion in the arts, getting young people into theatres is something Fiona cares deeply for. “The arts shouldn’t be for rich people and rich kids,” she said. “Getting training in the arts is becoming really expensive. It used to be free to learn music and dance at school and train at drama school, but now all of this stuff costs so much money.
“I firmly believe passionately that talent isn’t anything to do with money, talent is everywhere and we have to nurture talent and my charity is very much about that. It’s great because a guy in my show called Afolabi Alli who got a bursary from my charity to go to drama school. He is brilliant and we gave him a bursary to get through Bristol Old Vic and it makes me really happy.”
Fiona explained how she went through the play vigorously as if Shakespeare was by her side and cut out all of the jokes that just aren’t funny anymore. “It’s a hilarious play but we need to make sure it makes a modern audience laugh. I can imagine a lot of young people come to the theatre reluctantly, thinking it will be boring, and I really want to change that,” she said.
“I want to let them know in the first minute of the play that this is not going to be boring and you are going to laugh, you can sit back and have a good time. It matters to me massively that people want to carry on going to the theatre and they’re only going to do that if we keep producing quality work that appeals to young people.”
The RSC’s outrageous and vibrant production of The Merry Wives of Windsor runs from the 4th of August to the 22nd of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Tickets and information can be found online here.