Review by Raphael Kohn
Imagine a 19th-century opera, but with gender-chaotic casting, queerness turned to 110% and accentuated comedy styling. Sounds fun? It certainly should to you. Direct from Norway, Queer Voices (Norway’s only queer opera company) bring The Merry Wives Of Windsor: A Queer Guerilla Opera, their version of the classical Otto Nicolai opera, to the Arcola theatre to open the 2023 Grimeborn season.
It’s a great concept, taking a work like Nicolai’s and queering it up. Queer Voices certainly does a brilliant job at doing so - drenching their performers’ faces in bright make-up, paper eyelashes and garish outfits (designed by Fridtjof Brevig). And it works stylistically, with a simultaneously modern and original aesthetic that doesn’t feel out of place in an opera. Companies like Queer Voices certainly need more of a presence on London’s stages, serving opera that is groundbreaking and hilariously entertaining.
Nicolai’s work itself was premiered in 1849, and follows the plot of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives Of Windsor, with the central character, John Falstaff, arriving in Windsor to woo two different women, both of whom are married. Quickly catching on to his scheme, Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, his targets, set up a series of pranks to humiliate Falstaff and mock him publicly for his actions. It’s a classic work, full of farce and humour, and is ideal as the basis for a light-hearted chamber opera.
What makes this production so appealing is the way it is reinvented for the 21st Century. Queer Voices prides itself on its diverse and rule-shattering casting, which is indeed done here. Falstaff, no longer the ‘fat and sexist’ pig from the original, is a gender non-conforming protagonist whose interactions with the citizens of Windsor are intended by the company to reflect society’s treatment of those who don’t conform to the expected gender binary. Mae Heydorn, who delivers a fine central performance as Falstaff, is humourous and, with a warm vocal tone, an excellent lead.
Joining Heydorn are Therese-Angelle Khachik and Mara Dale Johannessen as Mrs Ford and Mrs Page respectively. Hilariously bantering back and forth and with fantastic voices to suit, they are a classic pair. Khachik especially serves soprano sensationalism, filling the Arcola with her incredible voice with clarity and lyricism that most sopranos would kill for. Decked out in a skirt and fabulously sparkly handbag, Patrick Egersborg struts around, giving an impeccable comedy performance as Mr Ford, drawing many laughs with his fabulously camp portrayal.
It feels something of a shame that Marte Arnesen, whose voice comes across well in the chorus, feels somewhat underused in her role as Dr Cajus. With hilarious accent work, injecting harsh scratches into her consonants and delivering lines, both sung and spoken, in French, Arnesen is a welcome part of the cast whose role never quite gets fulfilled properly.
Despite only having a brief amount of time to rehearse in the Arcola space in this short festival, the piece is well directed in the space by Kristin Lundemo Overøye. Using every corner and regularly taking over the staircases to invade into the audience and get up close and personal, The Merry Wives Of Windsor is a true crowd-pleaser for anyone who loves a good bit of audience interaction. It’s never uncomfortable or forced, but each monologue and rhetorical question becomes a chance for a cheeky wink from a performer or a knowing glance while they approach you closely.
Yet, despite its winning performances, the writing itself reveals inconsistencies that the piece can’t seem to overcome. I left the first act with a huge grin on my face after a riotously queer and funny performance from the entire cast, yet the second and third acts begin to drag with extended pauses and a much slower pace that cannot match the first. It became a bit of a shame towards the end – with such a strong start, and with such excellent performances, one can’t help but wish the material was a bit stronger to keep the momentum going throughout the whole performance! Similarly, with a great combination of opera and comedy throughout the first half, the end of the opera brings out a darkness not seen in the opera before, which comes and goes without any real emotional impact.
Yet, with a first half that is pacy, punchy and funny, and despite a second half which drags for over double the length it should, The Merry Wives of Windsor is still an entertaining night out at the Arcola to kick off their 2023 Grimeborn festival. It may not be perfect, but it’s a great example of some of the fantastic queer opera you can experience in London, and certainly worth exploring before it closes in a few days’ time.
The Merry Wives Of Windsor runs at the Arcola Theatre until 22nd July 2023. Tickets are available from https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/merry-wives-of-windsor/
Photos by Talitha Khachik