The Merry Wives of Windsor/The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

THIS is Sir John Falstaff as you have never seen him before, careering across the stage encased in a Tubbs-style League of Gentlemen fat suit with a face like a scalded lobster.

William Shakepeare quite obviously anticipated the age of female emancipation and the ‘girl power’ that would emerge 400 years later, because this is actually a comedy of terrors for the male of the species.

It’s a salutary tale where the women are – despite outward appearances – always the wiser and never fail to outwit the men.

In this case the dupe is the fantastically revolting, corpulent sack-soaked roué Sir John, who really believes he can cuckold Frank Ford (Vince Leigh) and bed his wife.

Even being endowed with the king of cod pieces cannot tempt Mistress Ford (Beth Cordingly) who sashays across the boards dressed like an uneven cross between a 1970s backing singer in a glam rock band and a Tudor lady of the court.

But don’t be misled. Yes, the Essex girls gag is milked for all it’s worth, but these females are no Benidorm bimbos spouting nonsense and glottal stops while constantly preening themselves. Make no mistake, these are tough cookies.

However, the night indisputably belongs to David Troughton as Falstaff, an endless visual joke who, pound for pound – and there are indeed a lot of those – provides fantastic value for money.

Yes, he’s a fine figure of fun who falls into every trap that’s sprung. Yet you can’t help feeling sorry for him, too.

This morbidly obese buffoon is sat upon, dumped in a rubbish bin, stripped of any dignity there was in the first place, and generally laughed at by all and sundry.

The character of Justice Shallow (Tim Samuels) is once again the familiar Shakespearian debt-settling with Charlecote’s Lucy family. He treats nephew Slender (Tom Padley) in a tyrannical and bullying manner, a nasty piece of work undeserving of the mayoral chain he wears around his neck.

According to legend, none other than Queen Elizabeth herself commanded the Bard to write a play that revolved around Falstaff, who had first appeared in Henry IV.

This myth becomes a recurring theme throughout the play, the Faerie Queen popping up from time to time to check that the poet has complied with her regal wishes. Not even Shakespeare would want to mess with Good Queen Bess… and so we have Falstaff once more.

The Merry Wives of Windsor runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until next month (September).

John Phillpott