September 14, 2013, by Peter Kirwan
All’s Well that Ends Well (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The last production in the RSC’s 2012 summer season, a rare main-stage outing for All’s Well that Ends Well, followed a recent series of successful London revivals of the play, including the Globe’s own, the visiting production by Arpana Theatre (which I’ve reviewed in the recently released CUP book Shakespeare Beyond English), and the National Theatre’s sublime version. In the wake up these magical, hysterical and thematically challenging versions, Nancy Meckler’s entertaining production offered a well-performed and occasionally dazzling reading of the play that, for this reviewer, did not quite come together as a satisfying whole.
The ideas came thick and fast. A pounding nightclub scene introduced Alex Waldmann’s boy-man Bertram and Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles, the former taking off his shirt and necking with dancers. This was immediately contrasted with the funeral of Bertram’s father, his arrival and reunion with the grieving family captured in a series of camera flashes and still tableaux. The Countess’s house, decorated with plants in glass cases that emerged from the back wall, acted as a perfectly managed contrast to Bertram’s debauched lifestyle. Yet even in these first few minutes, stylistic tics were set up that were never returned to, and were added to in ever more random set pieces, from the choreographed dance routines of the soldiers to a scene of Bertram being dressed in full Desert Storm kit by his comrades, from a kiss between Bertram and Parolles that was not picked up again to a balmy outdoor set for the Widow’s house that flagged up an eclecticism of period and setting that didn’t seem to speak to anything transcendent in the play.
The flurry of devices was unnecessary, as at its heart this was a simple production that did great work in the individual performances to point up the emotional complexity of the play. Crucial to this was breaking down any simple binary between Helena (Joanna Horton) and Bertram, a role left largely to Waldmann. Bertram’s childishness extended to a brotherly fondness for Helena that rendered him completely oblivious to her affections. He watched her go through the King’s suitors in an amusing scene that saw the puffed-up courtiers deflated and whining as she kindly but firmly rejected each, and then he laughed out loud as she and the King called on him. He threatened to walk out, but at the shouts of the King rethought his actions and, terrified and deliberate, announced his loyalty to Helena.
Bertram’s emotional journey was derailed even before he left. Responding slowly to Helena’s request for a parting kiss, he found himself caught up in a passionate embrace, finally tearing himself away from his jubilant wife before hardening his own resolve. The conflict he felt over abandoning his wife led to a stunning version of the bed-trick, played in silhouette against a luminous screen, in which Bertram entered weeping with the letter informing him of Helena’s death. He reached out for the hand of ‘Diana’ and took that of Helena, cementing his unconscious dependency on the woman he loved, but refused to love. On the reveal of a (visibly heavily pregnant) Helena in the final scene, Bertram fell to the floor in amazement, before cradling the promise of his child and pledging his commitment.
Horton was the weaker of the central pair, best when handling the nervous aspects of the public scenes, such as the shaking of her voice as she attempted to release Bertram from her bargain with the King. But the earnest and distressed woman never found a compelling resolve, the soliloquies in particular coming across as a whine. This was a difficult performance to judge, however, as it was almost certainly affected by the indisposition of Charlotte Cornwell, meaning Karen Archer was understudying as the Countess while Kiza Deen stepped up from barely-speaking roles to cover Archer as the Widow. While both actors did sterling work in the difficult job of understudying, two roles that need to anchor key scenes in both halves ended up being more or less placeholders, with the scenes struggling to come to life or establish the interconnectedness and mutual support of the female roles that appeared to be implied.
Happily, the strong performances elsewhere caused the production to flare periodically into life. Greg Hicks was on the form of his life as the dirty-minded King of France, leaning out of his three-sided hospital bed (accompanied by nurses with enormous oxygen tanks) and whispering to his soldiers the way to woo the French women. Good-humoured and elegant even in his illness, he was introduced in his healed state in a measured dance with Helena that culminated in him performing a handstand, after which he was revealed as a long-haired, suave and confident ruler, spinning on his heels to deliver his orders. He was accompanied by the outstanding David Fielder as Lafew, a stoic lord who barked and smirked his way through scenes. The pair brought a welcome informality to patterned court scenes that added a human element to these scenes.
Fielder’s particular strength was in his relationship to Slinger’s Parolles. Always best in comic roles, Slinger smarmed and false-laughed his way through the role, continually bested by everyone he encountered and always attempting to save face, while rifling through his standing suitcase of suits and handkerchiefs or preening his medals. In his scenes with Lafew, his smile remained fixed even as his eyes registered his discomfort, while Lafew stood his ground and unleashed a perfectly measured, impeccably timed series of devastating insults that left the braggart flummoxed.
The capture subplot was played wonderfully, with Parolles stood on a pile of debris and screaming out the secrets of his side, while the Brothers Dumaine and Bertram in turn rushed to punch him as they were referred to, restrained by the rest of the soldiers. Michael Grady-Hill enjoyed himself as interpreter, affecting a crisp English accent and mediating between Parolles and the ludicrous cod-Russian accents of the rest. Grady-Hall’s final smirking ‘We shall speak of you there’ to Parolles was followed by one of the production’s most moving moments, as Slinger held the stage and delivered his own self-recrimination in a spirit of rare honesty.
Yet the production still moved in fits and starts. Lavatch remains Shakespeare’s most tedious Clown, and a valiant attempt to pour life into the ‘Oh Lord Sir’ setpiece by Nicolas Tennant was greeted by near-silence in the theatre. Natalie Klamar, on the other hand, was sparky and joyous as Diana, particularly as she dominated the final scene and riddled beautifully in preparation for Helena. It was here that the potential of the production (perhaps with its intended cast) to point to moments where women took stands was best felt, as the men were left confused and decentred by her confident assertions, and the final sight of a group of courtiers preening themselves to be chosen as her husband was an amusing inversion of the earlier scene with Helena.
The local criticisms aside, there was at the heart of Meckler’s All’s Well a simple and beautiful fairytale, and with some of the unnecessary diversions removed, the move from the glass cases of Rosillion to the careless and chaotic battlefields would have provided a clearer backdrop for the movement of these archetypal figures across epic backdrops. The quiet figure of Cliff Burnett’s Rynaldo, sat quietly by the glass cases and overseeing the careful maintenance of a home environment, was underused but his stillness and consistent presence acted as something of a centre of gravity for the calm state to which the play’s characters matured. Fascinating and amusing but, like its Bertram, this production didn’t quite seem able to commit.