All’s Well That Ends Well – July 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 23rd July 2013

Another impressive preview from the RSC. Directed by Nancy Meckler, this production of All’s Well uses modern settings and costumes to good effect, with performances to match. There’s still some scope for improvement – the opening scenes were a little slow – but like Lafeu, my eyes smelled onions by the end. We had central seats in the stalls so we had a good view of all the action, and apart from one mobile phone going off the audience was pretty well behaved.

The stage was remarkably bare at the start, with only a small table on it. A huge round arch at the back had two sliding doors, one grey and one black, which often met together in the middle. Before the start I was aware that the grey one on the left had the play’s title on it. Various effects were projected onto the back wall, whether the doors were in place or not, and this allowed for very quick changes of location. When both doors opened up, there was a wide platform behind them which could slide forward to create a new location, and it was also used to bring Helena back to life at the end. Furniture was brought on and off quite quickly, and the pace was pretty good overall.

The costumes were a strange mixture; mostly modern, there were so many uniforms and court clothes that it was hard to place the period, intentional as it turned out. The medical staff who attended the king wore very modern white uniforms while the soldiers wore desert fatigues, and with very contemporary music blaring out from time to time, I assumed a present-day setting was intended. From the director’s talk, we learned that the choice was more subtle, with each character being dressed appropriately for their personality.

A short tableau opened the performance, with Bertram centre stage and Helena standing in a doorway high up on the right side of the arch. Both were spotlit with the rest of the stage pretty dark. As the spots faded, a raucous nightclub party broke out, and before long Bertram and Parolles were dancing together on a table. Helena arrived and gave Bertram a message, after which he left and the party broke up.

A snow video was playing on the back wall as a funeral procession made its way across the back of the stage. Servants held umbrellas for the Countess and a chair was brought on for her, with a table further back. Bertrand arrived, and there was a short series of tableau intended to show us the grieving family. These didn’t work particularly well for me and I’ve no idea how much people who don’t know the play would have understood from it. However they eventually started the play proper, at which point the music which had been playing all through the opening section stopped.

The picture at the back was now the sweeping branches of a bare tree, emphasising the sense of loss. The Countess, Lafeu and Bertram gave us the necessary information about what was going on, while Helena stood silent at the back of the group, beside the table. As he said goodbye to her, Bertram gave her his tie, draping it round her neck like a scarf. He also kissed her on both cheeks, an unfortunate sign of affection. When everyone else had left the stage, Helena revealed to us the depth of her feelings for Bertram, holding his tie all the while.

Parolles arrived with a large trunk which he later opened up so that he could finish dressing for the journey. For this part, Jonathan Slinger was wearing a pencil thin moustache which stuck out well past each cheek, and I couldn’t help thinking that a wig would have been helpful as well; Parolles is so vain that he would surely have covered up the bald spot. The sparring between Helena and Parolles was moderately good fun although the language is a bit obscure, and we were left in no doubt that Helena was determined to get her man.

For the court scene, strip lights descended, the back wall took on a grid pattern, and the king arrived in a wheelchair attended by medical staff and two soldiers. Bertram presented the king with a scarf on his arrival, and joined in when the king recited the previous Count Roussillon’s words. The king’s great love for Bertram’s father was clear, as was his affection for his dear friend’s son.

For the next scene we returned to Rossillion, and the doors at the back opened to reveal the platform with four large glass tanks on stands. The tanks held an assortment of exotic plants, and we learned later that these represented a conservatory. The platform moved forward a bit, and one of the Countess’ servants was tending the plants – Lavatch’s intended. The Countess was highly amused by Lavatch’s foolery. I wasn’t so taken with him – neither was the steward – but Nicholas Tennant took a while to get into his stride as Touchstone so I’ll hold my fire on this clown for a while. The Countess’ steward may have been dressed like Buttons from Cinderella, but he maintained a strict propriety throughout his confession of eavesdropping. When Helena arrived, her conversation with the Countess brought a few laughs, as well as showing us the strong bond between the two women.

At the court we were shown the soldiers in training, with practice fights going on all over the stage. This time the king entered in an incubator – going downhill fast – and while he said his farewells to the lords who were going off to war, Bertram was fidgeting noticeably (to us at any rate). After the soldiers had all left, the king was back in his wheelchair for Lafeu’s entrance, and we enjoyed the way Lafeu placed a hanky on the ground before kneeling – didn’t want to get his Savile Row suit dirty.

Helena’s discussion with the king was well done. It’s a strange scene, with Helena showing more and more confidence as it goes on, but with Greg Hicks giving another masterful performance as the king, these difficult changes didn’t stop the flow of the story.

Back in Roussillon, again with the plants, Lavatch was a little more entertaining in mocking courtly manners, and almost immediately we were back in the court itself. This time the soldiers were in dress uniform, celebrating the good news of the king’s recovery. Trays of champagne were being offered round, and Bertram was indulging a little too freely. Knocking it back in fact, which may partly account for his later behaviour. Parolles was done up in a coat plastered with rosettes, suggesting he’d had great success in a gymkhana somewhere. Apart from that, he didn’t seem as fantastical as usual, and the banter between Parolles and Lafeu felt a bit flat.

The king arrived via the platform; cleared of plants it was now an open space with poles at each corner. The king and Helena were dancing together on the platform as it moved forward, and to top off this demonstration of health and vitality, the king even stood on his head! The announcement of Helena’s reward didn’t dismay this group of nobles, while Bertram clearly considered himself exempt from selection. While he stood leaning against one of the corner posts – the king was now sitting on his throne in the middle of the platform – the other lords lined up along the front of the stage, kneeling in duty to their king. As they had their backs to us we couldn’t see their expressions, but if ever a row of backs said “me, me, pick me”, this was it. We did get glimpses of their faces; when Helena spoke to each man he stood up and turned slightly, and there wasn’t a scrap of reluctance to be seen, only disappointment when she dismissed them. The fourth chap had a wonderfully smug look on his face when he stood up – “it’s me!” – at which we laughed, and he was even more crestfallen when she turned him down. I don’t remember Lafeu’s comments during this scene, and given this interpretation it would make sense to drop them.

By this time Helena was at the front of the stage, and turned to look at Bertram. He had been very relaxed while all of this was going on, even giving her a double thumbs-up when she refused the second lord. Now, as she looked straight at him and declared that he was her choice, he stood upright and then looked behind him for some other lord – very funny. He also laughed, very loudly, when the king told him that Helena was his wife, but that’s pretty much his last laugh of the scene. Bertram’s refusal to marry Helena led to the king’s anger and Helena’s sadness, so although the king enforced the wedding, neither Bertram nor Helena looked remotely happy as they stood side by side on the platform at the end of the scene. The platform withdrew to the sound of a church bell tolling, an appropriate dirge-like sound in the circumstances.

During the next bout between Parolles and Lafeu, Parolles nearly called Bertram his “master”, despite denying such a relationship to Lafeu, and we had a good laugh at that. When Bertram returned, he changed his clothes in the middle of the stage, preparing for his journey. Parolles nearly kissed Bertram as they hugged to celebrate going off to war, but Bertram wasn’t keen. After Helena had received a letter from the Countess via Lavatch, Parolles came on to deliver her marching orders, and then Lafeu entertained us with his mock regret over mistaking Parolles for a braggart. When Bertram said his farewell to Helena, she eventually plucked up the courage to ask for a kiss, and Bertram obliged for once. He gave her a quick peck on each cheek, and then a longer kiss on the mouth, at which point she grabbed him and they had a proper snog. When Bertram pulled away, he looked surprised, as if a slumbering emotion had stirred a little, but he soon grabbed his bag and left his new wife alone.

The next scene had the French soldiers arriving in Florence and being welcomed by the Duke. Bertram arrived in time for the First Lord Dumaine to refer to him when he said “I am sure the younger of our nation”. As the rest left, Bertram stood in a square of light in the middle of the stage, and the other soldiers brought on his military gear and kit to dress him as a soldier. Fully equipped, he brandished his weapon and strode off, happy at last.

Back in Rossillion, Lavatch had delivered a letter to the Countess, who was dismayed to read Bertram’s petulant dismissal of his wife. Helena and the two Dumaine brothers also turned up – must be those ultra-fast French trains – and we learned of Bertram’s apparently impossible conditions for Helena to be accepted as his wife. I could understand the Countess being unhappy with “nothing in France”, and not just for Helena’s sake. The first half ended with Helena’s soliloquy and prayer for Bertram’s safety, as she realised that she was the cause of Bertram going to war and into danger. Her decision to leave Rosillion made sense in these circumstances.

The second half started with more loud music as the soldiers did a fighting dance. At the end of it, Bertram was alone on the stage, continuing to fight until victory was achieved (if I’ve interpreted the dance correctly) at which point the others ran back on and hoisted him onto their shoulders, cheering their success. The Duke of Florence entered and created Bertram the general of his horse, presenting him with a helmet; Bertram nearly refused and gave the helmet back, but decided to keep it after all.

Back in France, the Countess had more bad news to handle when Reynaldo, her steward, gave her Helena’s letter revealing that she too had run off. Reynaldo struck me as very prissy, which was a nice touch. Then we were in Florence again, and this time the platform came forward along with four women, keen to see the soldiers as they came back to the city. They missed out on the soldiers, but Helena, dressed in white robes, arrived instead. She soon discovered that she would be lodging with the widow, whose daughter, Diana, was being pursued by Bertram. As the soldiers came by a second time, Helena put her hood back up and stayed towards the back of the group; apart from Parolles, the soldiers didn’t come on stage, and the women soon drove Parolles off.

For the next scene, a camp bed was brought on with a basin of water, and this appeared to be Bertram’s tent. He and the Dumaine brothers came in, and Bertram dumped his kit on the bed before having a quick wash and putting on a fresh T-shirt. The brothers were trying to persuade Bertram that Parolles was a coward, but Bertram was reluctant to believe them. You have to give the lad points for loyalty, even if he scores nowt for good judgement. Parolles himself came on and was easily goaded into boasting that he would recover his drum from the enemy. By this time Parolles was reminding me of Falstaff, appropriately enough, as the coming trick that would be played on him was a recycled version of the trick Prince Hal and Poins played on that errant knight.

Before Helena and the widow had their conversation, there was a short scene inserted to show the brutalising effects of war on ordinary men. The platform came forward again, done up like a bar and with a guitarist in one corner. He was playing a fairly gentle tune, even though his guitar was electric. The widow, Diana and the other two women were there, and when some soldiers arrived they began to raise the tempo. The guitarist turned up the volume and the pace, the soldiers grabbed some of the women and took them to one side to dance with them, but when it turned ugly and the three younger women were being threatened with unwanted advances, and possibly rape, the widow used one blast from her shotgun to stop the men in their tracks. She had to brandish it a bit more before they left, and it was after this escapade that Helena came on to talk with the widow about her daughter.

Helena put her purse of gold on one of the tables, at which the widow sat while Helena poured out her plan. The widow grasped the plot quickly – all the women in this play seem to be much smarter than the men – and they had soon agreed to set up the Count Rossillion, with Diana as the bait. As they left, the regular soldiers came back on and quickly hung some camouflage netting over the front of the platform, creating a ‘hedge’ behind which they could hide. They planned to speak unintelligible gibberish to Parolles, and practiced for a while before hiding behind the netting. Parolles came on singing a French song, and was nearly off the stage before he paused, looked back the way he had come and decided he was far enough away from the camp to be safe. He could finally relax, and when he spoke he used his own accent, not the posh one he’d been putting on up to now.

Then followed the reprise of the letter scene in Twelfth Night, with Parolles turning round and causing the soldiers to duck, the soldiers commenting on Parolles’ words, and even a double take as the soldiers ducked a little too late one time. Parolles’ self-knowledge was quite unusual for this type of fool, and quite endearing – many of us can confess to having run away at the mouth at times and regretted it later. He took out a small dagger to give himself some wounds, but only managed a tiny prick on his hand; even that was too much for him, and we laughed at his loud “ow”. The soldiers crept out of hiding and soon had him wrapped in a blanket, and from the terrible noises they were making, he was soon convinced they were Russians and that he was in mortal danger. Michael Grady-Hill was the interpreter, and he did a lovely job, gabbling away in nonsense words before turning to the covered-up Parolles and speaking in an impeccably cultured accent. They soon dragged Parolles off to the camp, to await the Count’s convenience.

Bertram was quite pushy in his wooing of Diana, and she had to work hard to keep him off at times. When he refused to give her the ring, her counter-argument regarding her ‘ring’ was very clear and completely won him over. Their assignation settled, there was a short scene between the Dumaine brothers, but the sounds of chirping crickets were a bit too loud for me to hear it clearly. I got that there was a letter but not the details, although I assumed it was to do with the news of Helena’s death. The letter did contain that news, but we didn’t learn about it till after the bedroom scene which split the Dumaine brothers’ conversation.

With the brothers off the stage, the doors at the back opened to reveal the platform with a bed on it. Diana was there, and when Helena came on she greeted her and placed the Count’s ring on her finger, before leaving her alone. The lights went low, representing the darkness, and Helena groped her way round the bed to sit on the far side. Bertram entered on the left, and looked very upset. He sat on the front side of the bed, and eventually held out his hand to the woman he assumed was Diana. The doors closed again and the stage was set up for Parolles’ interrogation.

A pile of kit bags was set up in the middle of the stage, and Parolles was made to stand on top of it. As he stood there blindfolded, he was clearly terrified and ready to confess to anything. The interpreter brought out an old, battered typewriter and used it to take notes – not really typing, just using the keys. The reactions of the soldiers around him were the key part of this scene; it was very funny to watch each Dumaine brother and Bertram lose their temper with Parolles and rush to attack him, only to be held back by the others. They held a conference at the back of the stage before telling Parolles he was going to be executed. For that, they made him kneel down with his head on the typewriter, and Bertram used the edge of his hip flask to hold against Parolles neck, suggesting the axe. When the blindfold was taken off, Parolles was astounded to see his ‘friends’ around him, but when they left, he was remarkably philosophical about it all. He peeled off his moustache – laughter – and his observation “There’s place and means for every man alive” shows that he isn’t a complete fool, nor completely crushed by his exposure and humiliation.

Helena, the widow and Diana made their way across the stage, stopping for a quick breather and to give us information about their intentions. Then back to Rossillion, where the grieving Countess and Lafeu discussed the loss of Helen, interrupted by Lavatch’s foolery, which I didn’t find intelligible let alone funny. I did gather that the Countess kept him on for the sake of her dead husband, which explained a lot. After the news of Bertram’s arrival, we had another quick glimpse of Helen and her train as they approached the French court. Finding that the king had already left for Rossillion, Helena made good use of her charms to persuade a passing Gentleman Astringer (keeper of hawks) to take a petition to the king, presuming he would get there first (although that would depend on whether SNCF’s high-speed trains would take his covered birdcages or not).

At Rossillion, the plants were cut back to one tank, which was wheeled on to decorate the stage along with some chairs. Lavatch, Parolles and Lafeu had a short scene together and again I wasn’t taken with Lavatch’s contribution, but the changed relationship between Parolles and Lafeu was a nice preamble to the final confrontations, suggesting as it did the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.

This staging had Lafeu’s daughter Madeleine entering with her father. She isn’t mentioned in the text, so although they squeezed in a curtsy to the king and a silent greeting to Bertram, she had to leave the stage immediately afterwards for the king’s instruction “Send forth your amorous token for fair [Madeleine]” to make any sense. The drawback is that Bertram, despite claiming that it was love for Madeleine that stopped him accepting Helena as his bride, had very little chance to show any real affection for the girl, so it still sounded like a feeble excuse, which it may well have been. Her affection was even harder to judge, as was her reason for leaving the stage so abruptly when her future husband was present – call of nature perhaps?

The king ticked Bertram off for a very long time; despite the excellence of Greg Hick’s delivery, I was ready for him to wrap things up and move the play along a good few lines before the “amorous token” order. Still, he did it beautifully, and as I realised a little later, Bertram’s suffering echoes Parolles’ humiliation earlier, so lay it on as thick as you like, the boy earned it.

The discussion of the ring’s origins – this is the one which the king gave to Helena and which she put on Bertram’s hand during their one night of sex – was interrupted by the arrival of the Gentleman Astringer, and if Bertram thought his day was going badly so far, it was about to get ten times worse. His marriage to Madeleine, whether he was keen on it or not, was completely scuppered, and now a woman he ‘knew’ he had wronged was hot on his trail and claiming his unwilling hand yet again. I begin to see why the eventual resolution, the resumption of his first marriage, might seem like a blessed relief after this battering.

Diana and her mother were very entertaining. Mind you, Diana had to nudge her mother to get her talking, but again we had a young woman who was totally at her ease not just talking to a king but giving him some cheek as well! Bertram had obviously never learned that when you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging; the hole beneath his feet was getting deeper and deeper as he tried to lie his way out of each new revelation of his dishonour, and Parolles’ evidence put the tin lid on it. I noticed that Bertram went to Parolles and appeared to whisper to him before the interrogation, but it didn’t affect what Parolles said as far as I could tell.

Diana’s riddling answers about Helena’s ring infuriated the king, and when she said “if ever I knew man ‘twas you”, she directed that accusation to the king himself. Her riddle complete, she turned to indicate the front right walkway on “And now behold the meaning”. While the staff cleared the chairs and glass tank out of the way, the doors at the back parted, the rest of the characters slowly turned round, and Helena appeared on the platform, dressed in white and with a small bulge for the baby. (She was on her own, no widow in this production.) This was too much for Bertram, who went to the front of the stage and lay huddled on the ground. He did get up to finish the scene, thankfully, and his final lines “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly…..” suggested that she had made him know what she was worth, and that he did now value her as highly as she deserved. He’s still not the best husband material, being so young and immature, but if anyone can lick him into shape it’s probably Helena.

The king’s offer of a husband for Diana wasn’t such an obvious mistake with this production, and the remaining lords eagerly lined up for another round of France Has Got Husbands. We laughed, of course, and Diana seemed quite happy with her prospects. The king summed up the play with the couplet “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”, a good place to finish. The epilogue was dropped, and we applauded mightily. We’re seeing this again in August, and hopefully we can squeeze in another performance as well. We’ll not see such a good production for some time, if ever.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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