January 28, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
All’s Well that Ends Well (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
In the end, I only saw two productions at the Globe while it was under Emma Rice’s leadership. This wasn’t by design – I loved Rice’s work with Kneehigh and, irrespective of the ongoing complaints about her treatment of the space, I thoroughly enjoyed the version of her Midsummer Night’s Dream that the BBC broadcast last year. But in person, it was two productions by Caroline Byrne – a theatremaker clearly stylistically affiliated with Rice – that I saw, with last year’s Taming of the Shrew in the main house followed now by All’s Well that Ends Well in the Wanamaker.
This version of All’s Well was dark, literally. Only two of the Wanamaker’s main chandeliers were used during the production, and those only briefly; overwhelmingly the cast lit themselves with candles and torches, creating an intimacy and quietness that suited the production well, especially in its opening scene. Ellora Torchia’s Helena sat on a stage of black slate, cleaning and tending to a tomb, while wax candles in the shape of death masks burned away on the walls. The chamberlike atmosphere, here and elsewhere in the production, allowed for a pervasive melancholy air, a sense of things lost, that also contributed to the play’s elements of wonder; this was, perhaps, the most magical All’s Well I have seen.
Torchia was outstanding as Helena; sitting no more than a metre from her at times, I was struck by the subtlety of her anguish and tenacity throughout the production. This Helena suffered, and her face as Bertram left was heartbreaking, imploring him to stay but unable to say anything. This changed, of course. Will Merrick’s petulant, brattish Bertram was aghast to be forced into marriage with Helena (performed, impromptu, on the same altar that had earlier marked his father’s grave and now began his own metaphorical death), and after the wedding a distraught Helena screamed his name and her apologies over and over as everyone on the stage rejected her. Then later, she leaned desperately up towards him, begging against hope for a kiss of reassurance from her husband, and left attempting to hide her distress at his clear unwillingness. Torchia’s near-constant state of deeply felt emotional rejection was at times difficult to witness, but never less than compelling.
Helena was distinguished by the way she channelled her yearning into action. As soon as she made her decision to go to heal the King, she began clawing at the black tiles on the stage, lifting them up and stacking them into piles, revealing a mirrored floor underneath. By the second half the whole floor was revealed, creating a dazzlingly reflective surface that beautifully extended the pool of light captured by the flickering candles, and casting patterns across the ceiling. Helena’s work on the floor was combined with her preparation of medicines, all happening in the background while other scenes took place. The overlapping spatial organisation of this production (less Globe, more Cheek by Jowl) kept up the pace and helped clarify the plot and emotional connections between the figures, particularly when Helena’s toil provided a backdrop to Bertram settling in at court, always keeping in sight her target.
Nigel Cooke’s King of France looked heavily influenced by cursed Theoden from the second Lord of the Rings film, hunched over, though with Cooke’s typically sprightly voice still commanding authority. Helena’s healing took on a magical element that wouldn’t have seemed out of keeping with plays such as Pericles or The Winter’s Tale. This production, in fact, quite made the case for considering All’s Well alongside the romances. For the healing, she drew the King a bath, and he stripped entirely naked and sat in it while she cast petals in and raised her arms as if conjuring. The production took a long pause to light more candles before the King finally emerged from the tiring house, beautifully robed and fully restored, to cheers from the courtiers. The wonder was captured again at the end of the first half as Helena planned to follow Bertram in her travels. Bertram himself appeared on stage, taking over the peeling up of the tiles, and hooked her up to a flying apparatus – the first half ended with Helena soaring up through the ceiling of the Wanamaker, a powerful image simultaneously of the freedom of her escape, and its constraint.
While the production established its wonder well, the more straightforwardly comic elements suffered. The opening banter between Helena and Imogen Doel’s Paroles, played in sombre near-darkness, fell very flat, the actors working their hardest but fighting a losing battle against the oppressive atmosphere. Notwithstanding this, Doel was a delightful Paroles, beautifully dressed with feather in her cat, and conducting herself with a swagger. The production’s gender-swapped comedians also included Hannah Ringham as an amusingly droll Clown, offering withering put-downs to her betters; though Ringham was, I felt, disappointingly under-used (albeit she did good work as the army captain during the gulling of Paroles).
As the production shifted into its second half, the solidary of All’s Well’s women came to the fore. Martina Laird was dignified, warm and moving as the Countess in the first half, her sorrow at Bertram’s betrayal and her tender protection of Helena creating a point of safety for Helena and ensuring that the younger woman’s sense of loss didn’t become overwhelming. In the second half she was more pragmatic as the Widow, brilliant in her wordless disdain for Bertram’s philandering. She was accompanied by Paige Carter as Diana, who simply radiated goodness – her open smile, her utter devotion to Helena (bar some complaints during their long walk to Paris and Rosillion) and her endless optimism seemingly indefatigable. Diana’s tour de force during her audience with the King at the play’s climax was joyful – it’s hard to put my finger on, but without doing anything particularly sophisticated, Carter’s Diana simply refused to be cowed by the men insisting that she conduct herself properly.
The second half also saw some of the production’s most inventive staging with the bed trick, played in dumb show while the Brothers Dumaine sat downstage talking about Bertram. Across the central entrance of the tiring house was stretched a large fabric with a central slit (its sexual connotations obvious). Diana and Bertram went through this opening, from which their arms, legs and heads occasionally emerged; Diana then slipped out and spun Helena round into Bertram’s arms, the diminutive woman being pulled bodily through by her unknowing husband. While potentially gimmicky, the simple choreography of this sequence was effective, even joyful, the implied sex scene playful (especially with Diana beaming) and climactic in more ways than one, capturing in a way I’ve never seen before the emotional importance of this for Helena.
Which isn’t to say that it became unproblematic, mind. The more consent issues come up in the news, the more I find the bed trick hard to watch. Consent is an issue in All’s Well, both in Bertram’s false pretexts (and then flat-out post-coital lying) for getting women into bed, but also in Helena’s deception of Bertram, however reprehensible his treatment of her (and his ‘to bring me down?’ was particularly brutal when spoken before the outraged King). Helena’s deception was magnified in this production through one of the many interleaved, Kneehigh-style songs (which also included a setting of Hamlet’s ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’); as she imagined her trick on Bertram, she sang a song whose refrain eventually included ‘My freedom is you inside of me … I will engulf you’, sounding almost vampiric as she imagined herself consuming him and growing their baby. This note jarred for me, Helena’s plans becoming obsessive and vore-like, lending a sudden sinister edge to her character.
I’ve barely dipped into the comic plot, but special credit has to go to Shaun Mason who not only played a wonderful Dumaine (partnered by the equally good Buchan Lennon), but also at this performance was understudying Lafeu. His Lafeu was brilliant; his comic partnership with Doel’s Paroles was the genuine comic highlight of the production, the two of them blowing out one another’s candles, staring each other down across the stage, and wrangling beautifully both while Paroles was at her best and when she had been brought low. The bare-faced Mason’s deadpan delivery of ‘By my old beard / And every hair that’s on’t’ was pitch-perfect; I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a stand-in performance so much. The gulling of Paroles, on the other hand, was played relatively seriously, with Paroles dumped in a pit in the floor, and Bertram and the Dumaines shaking with anger at Paroles’ treachery. The emotional impact of the production in this darkened room seemed to even make this storyline one for serious reflection.
Following Diana running rings around the French courtiers, Helena and Bertram were finally revealed, and again the production aimed for – and hit – the wondrous atmosphere of Winter’s Tale. Helena entered, not pregnant, but with babe in arms. Bertram, having been forced to the floor by Diana, struggled to twist his head to see what was happening. I haven’t spoken nearly enough of Merrick’s performance, but he and Torchia absolutely nailed the pain and epiphany of their reunion. The production didn’t rush, allowing for a long silence of recognition and emotion before Bertram gasped out his ‘Both, both, o pardon’; a sincerity in his voice that actually felt persuasive. Helena stepped forward to the front of the stage and waited; Bertram slowly got to his feet and staggered forward. When Helena felt him next to her and felt his hand touch hers, she wept real tears, as did Bertram. The two of them stood there for a long time, holding their baby. Whether or not either of them deserve their ending, after such an enormous amount of pain and trial, this Bertram and Helena finally, in the seventh time I’ve seen this play, convinced me that all would be well.