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An Elizabethan/TOWIE mash-up?

We meet Fiona Laird for a chinwag about her RSC directorial debut, The Merry Wives of Windsor, fame and seeing Daniel Craig naked…

Rebecca Lacey, left, and Beth Cordingly, right. as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford Production photos by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

I’m even more excited about the RSC’s outrageously glitzy new production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor after meeting feminist director Fiona Laird. It’s a real Elizabethan and TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex) modern mash-up re-located to the nail-bars and beauty salons of Essex. We’re talking Elizabethan corsets with Versace leggings and “spangly” pink Chanel suit with an Elizabethan ruff designed by Olivier award-winning set and costume designer Lez Brotherston, Associate Artist of Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company.  There are even illuminated Tudor houses which change colour and spin around.

Previously Fiona has worked with stars including Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Lester, Bill Nighy, Dame Judi Dench,  Stephen Fry and Daniel Craig – who she’s seen strip off on stage – and her BFF is Ewan McGregor. The most enviable woman in British theatre chats to Muddy:

Karen Fishwick as Anne Page, and Luke Newberry – Fenton

How would you describe your sense of humour?

Quite British, quite eccentric.

Who or what makes you laugh?

I grew up on sitcoms of the 70’s, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, then Ab Fab in the 90s and American sitcoms.

What inspired your radical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor?

David Troughton and Beth Cordingly

I’ve translated and directed (Greek playwright) Aristophanes’ Frogs, Clouds and The Wasps. He was the first ever comedian and you can even see his influence on Ab Fab. It’s been really useful.

You can update Shakespeare as much as you like, but the words are still 400-years-old. We’ve created a mash-up of Elizabethan England and The Only Way Is Essex. I’ve cut down 20% of the actual words.

We have Tudor houses that light up, change colour and turn around. The costumes, likewise, are a real mash-up of corsets and Versace leggings. We have an Elizabethan ruff on a spangly Chanel suit. Lez Brotherston’s a genius! He designs costumes for Matthew Bourne.

Is it true you composed the music?

Yes. The music is also an extraordinary mash-up of Elizabethan instruments like lutes combined with thrash metal, Dolly Parton and girl-band pop. I’ve given various characters themes to add an air of fun and frivolity.

It’s been loads of fun but so tiring! I’m living on ready meals from M&S and have a mounting pile of ironing. In London I use Ihateironing.com; I’ve just found something similar in Stratford.

Tell us about your cast…

David Troughton – Sir John Falstaff

The ensemble is terrific. I’ve known the casting director for 20 years and we worked really hard on getting the casting right. David Troughton is lovely, I worked with him before at The National and I’ve wanted to direct him as Falstaff ever since. I am so loving watching him getting the laughs in, we’ve worked so hard on comic timing and it’s worked, thank God!

We also have the wonderful Becky Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford.

Any other interesting casting decisions?

Karen Fishwick as Amy Childs inspired Anne Page

We’ve developed the character of Anne Page, the daughter who gets married off. Karen Fishwick plays her as Essex-girl beautician Amy Childs. I have regender-ed some of the characters – the Host of the Garter is now Hostess of the Garter – Katy Brittain, and Bardolph, one of Falstaff’s entourage, is now a young woman played by Charlotte Josephine.

Are you a reality TV fan?

Oh yes! I love a bit of reality TV.

Did you watch Love Island?

I didn’t watch as much as I thought I would, but I did pick the couple who went on to win.

What do you think Muddy readers will especially enjoy?

Essex girls: Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey

It’s always good fun to have a laugh at men.  I’m a feminist and you grow up noticing women’s roles in plays. It’s a lovely change, particularly in this play, having the women take charge and making other women laugh. I really want women to come to this. It’s been a joy to watch the women in the audience react. Women who like theatre will get a lot from it…

David Troughton and Beth Cordingly

Is it a good one to bring your teen to?

Definitely. I have lots of teenage relations and god-children coming – some 10-year-olds may like it too. There’s always something to look at and I promise you they will forget they’re watching Shakespeare!

What does the extra dimension of live cinema screenings add?

Afolabi Alli (Pistol) and Vince Leigh (Frank Ford)

I don’t want people to see at as an alternative to going to the theatre but it’s great for people who can’t get to the theatre or live too far away, like my step-granny who is 96 and can go to her local cinema, and a disabled friend in Liverpool. The RSC also offers it as a resource to learn from, free for schools.

You helped set up the National Youth Arts Trust for aspiring actors and musicians from non-privileged backgrounds. Are there any young stars of the future we should watch out for?

Fiona and Afolabi Alli who is playing Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor during rehearsal. Photo by Beatrice Updegraff (c) RSC

I am very proud, we’ve an actor, Afolabi Alli, and we gave him a bursary to train at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He’s now working in the RSC company.

Politically it’s awful to think talented children cannot afford to train as actors or musicians.

When I found out I couldn’t have children I felt the need to have a legacy.

What are your career highlights?

Working with Ronnie Corbett. He was absolutely adorable, and so funny – such a nice person!

Early on, when I had my theatre company, we had a real hit in New York. One night Dustin Hoffman came to see the show, afterwards he came into the dressing room and said: “You guys are awesome!”.

Your readers might like to know that when I worked with Daniel Craig around 20 years ago I had to watch him take his clothes off every night. When I give talks to children I always tell them: “I’ve seen James Bond’s willy!” He’s a really nice guy!

This, too, is a highlight – it’s the first time I’ve directed for the RSC!

You’ve worked with many big names including Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Lester and Daniel Craig – which ‘celebrities’ have you particularly enjoyed working with?

Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth. Photo by Richard Davenport

All of those, Pauline Collins – who was Shirley Valentine – and Christopher Eccleston – I love him! He’s a fantastic Macbeth!

You meet a lot of famous and very talented actors – thoughts on fame?

Quite often you see young actors you have worked with go on to be famous and they become very narcissistic – surrounded by people telling them they’re great. For some people the fear of failure is huge. None of the actors I’ve mentioned are like that. Ewan McGregor is a close friend – he’s not like that either.

Where did you grow up?

Ely, Cambridgeshire. It was very much like The Barchester Chronicles. I am still very close to my family. My sister is a head teacher and  we have a very nice brother who’s a police head constable. If I feel like I need to get away, I go to Ely.

How do you like to unwind?

Fiona in rehearsal

With a glass of Prosecco. When I’m at home I love to sit in my garden, read a book and chat to my lovely partner. I also do love yoga.

Can you recommend any good books? I have just re-read (Anthony Trollope’s) The Barchester Chronicles – I find it very comforting. I’d recommend any novel by my good friend Marika Cobbold, who is Swedish and married an admiral. She’s brilliant at observing England. Definitely check-out Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers. My favourite book is War and Peace.

The Merry Wives of Windsor runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Sept 22, and at The Barbican in London between Dec 7 December 2018 and Dec 5, 2019. It will be broadcast live into cinemas on Sep 12, rsc

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