Saturday, 17 August 2013

Theatre review: All's Well That Ends Well (RSC / RST & TR Newcastle)

The final play in the RSC's main house season this summer is a bona fide Problem Play - although just how problematic can vary from production to production of All's Well That Ends Well. Helena (Joanna Horton) is the daughter of a famous doctor, and when the King of France has an apparently incurable fistula she uses her late father's techniques to cure him. In return the King (Greg Hicks) promises her the hand of whichever man she wants. She chooses the man she's loved since childhood, the Count Bertram (Alex Waldmann.) But not only does the object of her affection see her as his social inferior, he doesn't even remotely find her attractive. Forced into a marriage, he refuses to consummate it and runs away to war, telling her he'll only consider them truly married if she can get from him the ring he never removes, and bear his child despite his refusal to have sex with her. Not the kind of girl to take a hint the size of an anvil, Helena interprets this as a challenge, and hatches a new plan that'll see her follow him to the battlefield.

Where the initial poster for Maria Aberg's As You Like It correctly hinted at a Glastonbury-inspired production, the image that suggested Nancy Meckler's All's Well That Ends Well would be set during World War II turns out to have been misleading. Although fortunately the lack of a high concept isn't particularly detrimental to the production, which turns out to have a pretty much modern-day design from Katrina Lindsay, which like the NT's Othello uses desert camouflage to make for a very contemporary-looking story.

The "problem" parts of the play very much come down the the anti-romantic couple at its heart. The male lead is arrogant, vicious and sometimes misogynistic; but then again he's backed into a corner by a female lead who spends the whole play manipulating him into spending the rest of his life with her, despite his obvious wish not to. Meckler opens her production with a wordless montage giving the characters a bit of background - and she even manages to use the obligatory Alex Waldmann Topless MomentTM to establish the characters' relationship: As Bertram throws his shirt off at a party, Helena arrives and leans in to tell him the news of his father's death. While she can barely keep her hands off his chest despite the inappropriateness of the moment, he's as good as unaware of her presence until her news sinks in.

I've seen productions that tried to treat Bertram and Helena like any other romantic couple, and for my money ignoring their problems only makes them starker. Better to confront them, as here Waldmann makes Bertram a bit of an entitled Eurotrash type from the start, someone whose positive points once he starts excelling in battle will reveal themselves gradually, but whose less likeable qualities have been known from the start. The programme notes throw in a photo of Prince Harry, rather a good reference point for an aristocrat who fights with the common soldiers, and whose actions see him regularly bounce in the audience's opinion from hero to dick and back again.

Horton's Helena, meanwhile, has more of a hint of unhinged hysteria to her than I've seen before. Again this feels like a fitting reading - on realising Bertram doesn't love her, she appears horrified that the King is now demanding he go through with the marriage. Yet once in it, she continues to try and make it real, as if she's convinced herself since childhood that landing Bertram will give her her happy ending, and no proof to the contrary is going to hold her back.

In any case, a deluded, sociopathically single-minded Helena will always make more sense than her two main enablers, the King and Bertram's own mother (Charlotte Cornwell.) It's often said that the famous Bed Trick Helena uses to get pregnant would, if the genders were reversed, be unambiguously seen as rape. It strikes me that Bertram's whole story would, gender-flipped, be a much more familiar story of a woman forced into an arranged marriage. If it was Helena who fled an unloved husband who then followed her and tricked her into sex, All's Well That Ends Well would be even harder to reconcile with comedy than it already is.

Still, Helena''s accomplices in that bed trick are great: Karen Archer is a fabulously take-no-prisoners Widow, while as her daughter Diana Natalie Klamar takes great pleasure in teasing the royal court with her riddles, even on pain of death. The main comic subplot comes from Parolles, Bertram's sidekick and a braggart about his military accomplishments which, when put to the test, turn out to be entirely imaginary. Jonathan Slinger's mustachioed Parolles is at his best with David Fielder as his nemesis, and eventual friend, Lafew. Nicolas Tennant's got a much more thankless task, the clown Lavatch coming across as a total spare part.

Meckler's visually striking production is also very clear in its storytelling. It's not the best All's Well That Ends Well I've ever seen but it comes close, and though it succumbs to the RSC's recent weakness for a too-leisurely running time, that time does go by surprisingly quickly.

All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 26th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; and from the 5th to the 9th of November at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including interval.


  1. It IS unambiguously rape.

    1. Well, yes. But for some reason people don't seem to spot it until you flip the genders.