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From pop up to Pantaloonery

Big, bawdy, bumbling John Falstaff is so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor award-winning actor Katie Boyle is surprised the play isn’t named after him. Boyle plays not only the indelicate, impecunious knight who enjoys a drink but more than 10 characters from the play. Among them are the two wealthy married women Falstaff aims to seduce in a bid to restore his fortunes; a Welsh parson, a flamboyant hotel owner and a drunk pickpocket. In the comedy, Falstaff is short of money by the time he arrives at Windsor so he tries to wrangle his way into wealth by sending identical love letters to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford — the wives aren’t interested but for their own amusement, and to gain revenge for his indecent assumptions towards them both, they pretend to respond to his advances — and manage to get the whole town of Windsor involved in the process.

“We fell in love with the play,” says Boyle.

“It’s pure slapstick comedy. In the solo show all the characters are so distinct and out-there you can play them clearly.”

Many people will be familiar with Falstaff as the rowdy, hot-headed, big-willed, but ultimately tragic character who is presented as companion to Prince Hal, future king of England, in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. For The Merry Wives of Windsor though, he is the risible suitor of two married women.

Slap and tickle

There is slapstick, there is buffoonery, horseplay and ludicrously improbable situations in the play and Boyle’s production. When Falstaff believes he is meeting Mistress Ford for a spot of slap and tickle the wives trick him into hiding in a basket of filthy laundry which is taken away and dumped in the river. The jape doesn’t stop Falstaff. He just tells himself the wives are just “playing hard to get”.

Boyle and director Alexander Sparrow chose The Merry Wives of Windsor partly for its distinct characters in a story in which there are no identity switches as found in plays such as Twelfth Night. There is cross-dressing, though. Falstaff is tricked by the wives into dressing as Mistress Ford’s obese aunt to hide from Mistress Ford’s husband. Unfortunately, the husband hates the aunt and beats the cross-dressed Falstaff. The practical jokes get weirder but the play ends on an upbeat note.

“We want the audience to understand everything that happens,” says Boyle.

“Creating the characters was fun. They’re so rich and clear — like The Three Stooges. There’s the big, clumsy one, the jealous husband, the bumbling fool and the soft and well-spoken one. Each character is an extreme personality.”

In her solo show — albeit peopled by multiple characters — Boyle’s stage is stripped back to a basket of linen, a pair of horns and simple lighting.

“You can perform it anywhere,” she says — although for her Gisborne show she will perform it at the Evolution Theatre.

“When you’re on stage you insinuate the time and place through the language.”

Hurling insults

Boyle was a Year 12 student when she fell in love with Shakespeare. Her teacher had her students hurl Shakespearean insults at one another such as, “Thou leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch.”

“They are rich and vibrant insults,” says Boyle.

“It’s not just swearing. It’s witty, undercutting, subtle and deliciously evil. People can obsess with bringing out the romantic, poetic side of Shakespeare’s language but he also does dick jokes and fart jokes. Sometimes he is raucous and crazy.”

Highlights in Boyle’s acting career include performing in an all-women production of Hamlet at the Pop-Up Globe in which she played doomed Ophelia’s vengeful brother Laertes and treacherous Guildenstern. Her favourite part of performance is the immediacy between the stage and audience.

“When I’m on stage in natural light, and the whole audience can be seen, I have to talk straight to you. That’s where the best comedy comes from. The Merry Wives of Windsor is an interactive show — and with several characters vying for attention at once, they go to great lengths to be seen and heard.”

Katie Boyle performs The Merry Wives of Windsor, Evolution Theatre, Disraeli Street, May 17, 7.30pm. Tickets $20 presale at www.eventfinda.co.nz. Door sales $25, cash only.

BASKET CASE: Award-winning actor Katie Boyle plays a multitude of characters in her solo performance of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Picture supplied