THE Merry Wives of Windsor have become the Even Merrier Wives of Essex in a new production of Shakespeare's comic romp.

This Bard meets Birds of a Feather reworking is staged not by some group of theatrical anarchists at the Edinburgh Festival, but by the illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company, cited by myriad experts as the greatest theatre company in the world.

The play is a vehicle for Shakespeare's great comic creation, Sir John Falstaff. Elizabethan audiences, notably Queen Elizabeth 1 herself, couldn't get enough of Falstaff. The Merry Wives was written at the queen's personal behest, to entertain the summer court at Windsor Castle.

In the Merry Wives, the fat, disreputable knight is in lustful mode as he attempts to seduce two respectable middle-class ladies. Broke – as usual - he also hopes to dun them for a few quid in the process.

Appalled by his impudence, and revolted by him physically, the merry wives contrive a prolonged and hilarious vengeance on Falstaff.

The idea of transplanting this light-of-heart farce into Towie country was the brainchild of the production's director, Fiona Laird.

Despite a distinguished international record as a director, and also composer, Fiona is breaking a glass ceiling of sorts. She is the first woman to direct The Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC's main house in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The play, a firm summer season favourite, has been staged many times in many ways. Fiona needed to come up with a new take, for this milestone occasion. By her own account, the answer came to her pretty well instantaneously.

“There was never any doubt (about the Essex setting),” she says.

And then ... yes … she adds: “It was the only way.”

Fiona is familiar with the real Essex, as well as the mythological land of the Sugar Hut, orange tans and Essex Girl jokes.

“I come from East Anglia - Ely - and I have relatives in Billericay. I've known Essex well, for a long time, and I kind of love it,” she says.

The defining qualities that Fiona picks out as “distinctively Essex” are “real style” and “a wonderful confidence.”

She says: “Essex is quite an affluent place, but there is no sense of entitlement.” Essex people have worked for their prosperity, not inherited it.

The parallel with the Elizabethan Windsor of the Merry Wives quickly becomes apparent. “Falstaff, an entitled man, sees the merry wives as lower class suburbanites, and easy pickings,” says Fiona. “But he badly underestimates them. There's never even a hint that Flastaff might succeed.”

Design, embracing costumes, scenery and lighting in a unified vision, always counts for a lot in RSC productions. Here again Fiona knew exactly what she was going for.

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“It's a mash up of Elizabethan, and The Only Way is Essex,” she says. “For instance, you've got Tudor corsets – and Versace jeans. Pony tails – and ruffs.”

The same goes for the original music, which multi-tasker Fiona is also composing. It mixes contemporary pop of the sort that blares out from car radios on the A127, with the RSC house style of lilting, romantic Tudor ballad.

Merry Wives revolves around two strong-minded women who exert justice on a randy old goa. The plot has obvious resonance in the era of Harvey Weinstein and #Me Too, proving yet again just how contemporary the Bard can be.

However, Fiona plays down the serious issues and modern echoes. “It's really about fun and laughter,” she says.

Yet one aspect of the production was treated, if not with solemnity, then at least with diligence – the research.

“However light (the play), actors do always need to feel that they are getting under the skin of their characters,” Fiona says. “They may be comic roles, where the main purpose is to be funny, but their characters still have to be believable. They need to feel that they are playing someone who is real.”

With this in mind, Fiona set the cast, led by David Troughton as Falstaff, a core piece of homework. They had to watch The Only Way Is Essex.

“They all did so, and I think they really enjoyed it,” she says.

The exercise helped the players to pick up the rhythms of Essex-speak, which they then blended with Shakespeare's speech rhythms, to produce a unique new branch of elocution. Bardex, anyone?

Fiona also did a bit of gumshoe research. She spent a day to Chigwell, home, of course, to the archetypical Essex girls, Sharon and Tracey, of Birds of a Feather fame.

“I basically just met local people,” she says. “I talked to them, but especially I listened to them.”

Fiona is keen to stress that the production of Merry Wives in no way is “taking the mickey out of Essex people.”

She adds: “In fact, we hope that Essex audiences in particular will enjoy it.”

Cambridgeshire girl though she may be, Fiona's zest for all things Essex entitles her to honorary Essex Girlship.

Whatever the result, this will not be the first time that a link between the RSC and Essex has proved fruitful.

Almost half a century ago, in 1970. this newspaper ran the first profile of a young local girl from Southend, who was starting to make a name for herself with the RSC.

The name of that RSC alumni? Helen Mirren.

The Merry Wives of Windsor will be screened in cinemas across Essex, including on Wednesday September 12. The production moves from Stratford to the Barbican Theatre, London, on Friday December 7.