All’s Well That Ends Well
by William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Thursday 15th August 2013, matinee
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Karen Archer – Widow
Cliff Burnett – Rynaldo
Charlotte Cornwell – Countess
Kiza Deen – Violenta/Attendant
Daniel Easton – Soldier/Ward
David Fielder – Lafew
Dave Fishley – Duke Of Florence
Michael Grady-Hall – Soldier Interpreter
Greg Hicks – King Of France
Rosie Hilal – Mariana
Mark Holgate – First Lord Dumaine
Joanna Horton – Helena
Chris Jared – Second Lord Dumaine
Natalie Klamar – Diana
Jonathan Slinger – Parolles
John Stahl – Gentleman Astringer
Samuel Taylor – Soldier/Lord
Nicolas Tennant – Lavatch
Alex Waldmann – Bertram
This is a play better known by its well-known-phrase or-saying title, than by its plot. Not many plays get five star ratings from all the major newspaper reviews, and even a “best in season.” As the 2013 summer season includes As You Like It (LINKED) (the best I’ve seen) and a decent Hamlet, (LINKED) this is praise indeed. The three plays are in rep, so it’s much the same cast too. Alex Waldmann is Orlando in As You Like It, and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, so two lead roles, plus Horatio in Hamlet. Joanna Horton was a hilarious Celia in As You Like It, and takes the lead as Helena in this. Jonathan Slinger is covering Hamlet and here, Parolles, the major comic part. Charlotte Cornwall is Gertrude, plus here the Countess of Rossilion (Rouissilon). Greg Hicks is Claudius, plus here the King of France. Nicholas Tennant covers Touchstone in As You Like It, Lavatch in this, so two fools, plus Guildenstern. Some actors have talked about how playing a role for several months affects their psyche, Mark Rylance being one of them. Screw Stanislavski, when you’re playing three different roles all summer you don’t go down that road.
So, I’ll start off with a minor disappointment. All the publicity shows a woman gazing wistfully into the summer sky at a Spitfire. Immediately you think this tale of women left behind by men going off to war will be set in the hot Battle of Britain summer of 1940,with Air Force blue uniforms, handlebar moustaches, perhaps an open-top MG on its way to Biggin Hill aerodrome. It’s not and the war has us watching those Desert Storm army fatigues being produced in bulk for every RSC and NT production. That to me is a lost opportunity, and perhaps when the poster was designed many months ago, 1940 had been the plan. As can happen, strong period identification in modern dress productions can collapse when the words in the script won’t stretch to fit it, and the wars of 16th century France and Tuscany do not lend themselves to Spitfires, Hurricanes and ME109s. Instead it is generically modern dress. But, as with the rest of the production, the costume is brilliantly done. Take an example, when Helena claims Bertram as her husband, she is in a bright red frock, the King of France all in white, Bertram in a bright blue tunic… the three of them forming the French flag across the stage. The use of white marks the King of France, from his first appearance, at death’s door, all in white in hospital gown, surrounded by white-clad nurses, and hooked up to all sorts of life support. Then when Helena cures him, he cartwheels, does a handstand, and reappears dressed in an Imperial white uniform … white is a kingly marker, based on according status in attire to the degree of maintenance required. The desert fatigues have all the waistcoats and packs of war attached. The women’s clothes, particularly Helen’s pinky-beige dress and the Countess’s black dress, fall in complex folds. Though once Helena has cured the king, the dusty pink becomes the bright red of power.
Bertram leaves for war, the Countess is giving him the ancestral ring.
The play starts off with a series of freeze frame tableaux, a triumph of lighting plot. In dumb show, Bertram takes the news of his father’s death, and we see Charlotte Cornwall’s Countess at the funeral. Shakespeare hasn’t written any words yet, but already we’re entranced. Later, instead of the usual thespian prancing around with firearms, the war sequence is done as a choreographed dance sequence, a way better choice. Bertram is attired for war in a dance sequence too, which is strongly reminiscent of the jerky mechanical moves as the soldiers are equipped in the musical film Across The Universe. Then we have a dance sequence to the soldiers training. The music to the play, whether new age or rock, is also powerful.
After seeing this production, I’d rate the intrinsic play more highly than it’s usually appraised in the canon. It is praised for bringing out the gender issues, though surely that’s what it’s about. Helena is the daughter of the Count of Rossilion’s physician, so subservient to Bertram, the new count. She loves him from afar, and is greatly valued by his mother, the Countess. We see the Countess’s nurturing world by the set … a glass inner stage is used and slides back and forth, and for the Countess’s home, it’s full of glass tanks of beautiful exotic plants. Bertram is off for the heady excitement of the king’s court, leaving Helena behind. He has never considered her of interest. She follows him to the court, cures the king’s terminal illness with one of her father’s remedies, and is awarded the choice of any husband.
Joanna Horton as Helena
She selects Bertram, and he is appalled. He’s not ready nor remotely interested in responsibility, and snobbishly considers her an inferior, virtually a servant. Greg Hicks as the king, has gone from feeble invalid, to joyfully cured, to once-more potent king, and suddenly and loudly directs his full power and authority at Bertram (part of Greg Hick’s fabulous interpretation of the king). Bertram suffers full role reversal. His bride chooses him. The father figure (the king) gives him no choice. He’s stuck with it. But as the old comic rhyme says, ‘What steps are you going to take, (Bertram)?’ ‘Bloody great ones, he replied as he strode off into the desert …’ And he does. He escapes to war, avoiding consummating the marriage.
Helena takes the King of France to be cured
The war is quoted in reviews as ‘like Afghanistan.’ More subtle than that. The French have gone to assist the Duke of Florence, who appears dressed in black and red with a red beret, and is a black actor. What that brings to my mind is the various French army excursions into the deserts of West Africa propping up regimes in Mali and Mauretania. Bertram proves himself a hero, gaining a scar, and the heroes resort to the nearest bar. One of the funniest scenes is when they fall upon the girls and are sent packing by Diana’s mum with a shotgun blast. Diana. Bertram falls for Diana and longs to bed her, even being willing to give up his ancestral ring to do it. However Helena has arrived disguised as a pilgrim, and persuades Diana to let her take her place in bed with Bertram in the dark, so that Bertram unwittingly consummates the marriage.
Bertram triumphant in war
A minor quibble. We realize that even in the theatre, Helena and Diana need to be a similar height and build for the stratagem to work. You can’t have Gina Lollobrigida as the Tuscan temptress. On the other hand, Bertram is a lad, off to war for the first time. We think to ourselves, ‘Girls grow up faster than boys,’ and perhaps the males in the audience will secretly sympathize with Bertram’s unreadiness for marriage to the innocent, lovely, and oh-so-good and worthy Helena. I would have given Diana a more obviously ‘sexy’ costume. A slit skirt, a low neckline, heavier eye make up. To a 21 year old male, that’s all he needs for motivation. Whatever it’s all resolved. Helena gets pregnant, she gets the ring. The last explanation and revelation scene, so often hard to do in Shakespeare works perfectly. The combination of Greg Hick’s king trying to work it all out, the appalled expressions of Charlotte Cornwall’s Countess as her son’s perfidy is revealed, and the anguished expressions of Alex Waldmann’s Bertram make it all come together hilariously. We’re left with an enigma though. Bertram the Lad hasn’t been ‘educated’ through the process of the drama. He’s simply been ‘caught.’ Will it all end well? We have no idea.
Parolles is played by Jonathan Slinger, as the gay follower (can we say camp follower?) of Bertram. He relapses into a Northern accent when found out. It’s an excellent comedy performance, somewhat reminiscent of his Malvolio in Twelfth Night, though sitting up close, as we were, we were able to appreciate his subtlety better. The subplot focuses on Parolles’ cowardice and when captured, his treachery. He’s tricked by his brother officers who pretend to be the enemy, speaking in unknown languages and who put a hood over his head, tie him up and get him to reveal his willingness to betray them. It is suggested that Thomas Middleton may have assisted with bits of the play, and having watched A Mad World My Masters in the adjoining theatre the night before, the reaction is that Middleton may have been brought in as the “Tying up comedy scene specialist.’
A word on curtain calls. On the second call, we saw the principal five … Countess, King. Parolles, Helena, Bertram lined up at the front. But Jonathan Slinger is the centrepoint of the five, leading the bows. To me, that’s wrong. When you do pantomime, Widow Twanky may be the best-known actor, emblazoned above the title, but s/he takes last-but-one bows: Aladdin and the Princess are central, because that’s the story. You can only put Bertram and Helena centre. It’s their story. However stellar the clown may be, it is still the clown. Bad curtain call, but that’s about the only criticism of the production I can scrape up.
What about that other assessment, that it’s the jewel of the 2013 season? I’\d still award that to As You Like It, not because this was in any way a lesser production, or lesser performances, but because in the end the basic play on the page is better. We enjoyed both more than this season’s Hamlet. That worked for Slinger’s Hamlet as nerd, but compromised Claudius and Gertrude because the public school setting removed their necessary authority and power. Hicks and Cornwall in this one were both magnificent. Waldmann is the rising star, along with Horton whose Celia contrasted so much with her Helena.
Alex Waldmann as Bertram