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First Nighter: Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor About to Make Movie Screens Merry

Posted: 06/27/11 11:42 AM ET

Falstaff is going global. Or you might say, Falstaff is going Globe-al. What's meant by that? Well, Shakespeare's Globe London Cinema Series begins this Monday (June 27) with 6:30 p. m. screenings in theaters across the country, and it's not overdoing it to call for trumpet fanfare.

The initial offering from London's Globe Theatre is a four-part stage-to-cinema high-definition presentation. The inaugural play is The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare's 1590s comedy in which big-bellied, self-described ladykiller Falstaff gets his ignominious comeuppance from two of his hoped-for liaisons.

(Yes, astute Bard fans, Falstaff also gets an extremely harsh brush-off towards the end of Henry IV Part II, but that's a metaphorical whipping of a darker type and hardly as guffaw-inducing as his undoing at the hands of merry Windsor wives Mistresses Ford and Page.)

This version of the opus was a huge and rollicking hit when it played the south-of-Thames venue in 2010, as directed with great good humor by Christopher Luscombe. It amused audiences there and on a domestic and United States tour. (Statistics show the season's British-soil attendees reached 480,000.) Indeed, this reporter said on the TheaterMania.com website of the Globe Merry Wives of Windsor that the treatment is "thoroughly irresistible, immensely entertaining."

Following the Merry Wives showing on Monday, subsequent screenings -- all at 6:30 p. m. -- are Henry IV Part I (Monday, August 1), Henry IV Part II (Thursday, August 18) and the much less frequently offered Henry VIII (Thursday, September 15). This reporter has also seen those productions and rates them as uniformly worth viewing. Not incidentally, Roger Allam, the Henry IV Falstaff, was handed this year's Olivier Award as best actor for his rambunctious work. Christopher Benjamin, the Merry Wives Falstaff, is every pound as rib-tickling in his merry way.

Theater historians as well as just-plain-mavens know that the new Globe -- championed by American actor Sam Wanamaker and associate Mark Rylance, the institution's first artistic director and acclaimed actor -- opened in 1997 with a Henry V revival. Such a beginning is appropriate, of course, for that history play's prefatory speech in which a reference to "this wooden O," meaning the original Globe, prominently figures. At the opening gala, the rousing lines were delivered by Sam Wanamaker's superb actress daughter, Zoe.

Yet, only now is a much wider audience being afforded the opportunity to witness how Globe productions implicitly explain Shakespeare's reasons for constructing his plays as he did, always counting on audiences as participants. In his day, these included "groundlings," or audience members standing several-deep in front of the stage, many pressing enthusiastically against the stage. With the phenomenon now repeated in the 21st century, it's instantly understandable how effective it is when casts play directly to the crowds, often eliciting vocal approval or disapproval of the characters' behavior and to their cultural and political attitudes.

Talking in a telephone interview about the movie-house undertaking, current Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole explains that though he regrets none of the first years' productions have been recorded for archival purposes, they appeared "before the days of high-definition cameras" and any results would have been "not as good as we would like it to be." He says of the technological advances, "Our dream now is to build an archive of the complete works of Shakespeare." He sees the taped versions going out to "any territory interested in Shakespeare, as many as possible."

"Why don't you do a live performance?" is the question Dromgoole says he's frequently asked, but in his estimation that's not the ideal way to show off Globe ventures. The reason is that the edifice, constructed with a central opening to the skies, is -- as were performances during the 16th and 17th centuries -- at the mercy of the elements. The results, he comments, could be "rather a disappointing experience." Dromgoole points out that by taping more than one performance and then editing, "we can eradicate airplane noise" and eliminate other glitches.

There are other advantages to using film techniques when recording productions, a significant one being the ability to provide close-ups. With those, Dromgoole says, "you can really dig into the story and characters and the psychology of people." Addressing the notion of close-ups more specifically, Dromgoole sees them as serendipitously relevant, because "Shakespeare does his own close-ups with soliloquies. Characters talk directly to the audience, talk directly about what's in their heart. He's revealing what someone's thinking. It's the difference between the public and intensely private world, written in the way Shakespeare wrote his plays."

About making decisions on where cameras can be positioned and how they can be operating, Dromgoole explains that the production's director works with experienced television directors. Of the four offerings about to be introduced, an aggregate that Dromgoole dubbed "Kings and Rogues," he says, "It's undeniable we've managed to reveal how Shakespeare is impossible in any other architecture. It's alive in wind and in rain." He says the actor-spectator interaction is often paramount, although he recalls having to chide extraordinarily talented Jamie Parker for "snogging" -- British slang for smooching -- a groundling during one of his Prince Hal performances.

Such spontaneous ribaldry won't happen at a movie theater near you, of course, but every other exhilarating aspect of the Globe's "Kings and Rogues" summer is likely to materialize.