All’s Well That Ends Well – March 2016

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare (with a little help from Dominic Power)

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (STF) and Tobacco Factory Theatres (TFT)

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 31st March 2016

This production was a revelation: we were completely enthralled by this adapted version of one of Will’s ‘troublesome’ plays. As it was the first night, the cast were a little tense to begin with, but after some strong laughs in the first half, they relaxed into it, and the rest of the performance was noticeably more confident. There’s still some improvement in it even so; a few lines were fluffed tonight, but that’s to be expected, and one or two of the scene changes are likely to speed up with practice, but nothing detracted from this superb interpretation of this less-performed play.

Mind you, the purists would be having kittens. To make the play work so well, the part of Lavatch was almost completely rewritten. Instead of the grumpy, misanthropic, unintelligible bundle of misery we’ve sadly become accustomed to in previous productions, tonight we met Lavatch, Bertram’s prissy music and dance teacher, meticulous in his dress and with an unhealthy fondness for his pupil. Thus when he reported to the Countess that he’d overheard Helena confess her love for Bertram – he was standing in for Reynaldo as well – he made it quite clear that Helena was just a gold-digging trollop angling to snare Bertram, and that her lowly birth made her completely unsuitable to be his wife. This attitude continued through most of the play, leading to a bout of insanity when Bertram ran off to join the army, but as the play’s title suggests, it all ended happily enough, even for Lavatch.

The basic set was the same as for STF’s Hamlet, with the dark grey floor and pillars and the leaded windows over the main and back left entrances. There were small oil lamps on the pillars instead of candles, and at the start there were two upright black wooden chairs placed against a couple of the pillars. These chairs, and some rattan ones for the garden, represented Rossillion, the French king had a wooden wheelchair in his early scenes and a much more comfortable red sofa once he was better, while Diana’s mother, though poor, had a sturdy dining table with matching chairs. Other locations were suggested by lighting – light coming through an overhead grille accompanied Bertram’s meeting with the Duke of Florence, for example – and although the furniture could do with being moved a little quicker in some cases, on the whole the changes were smooth and efficient. Costumes were mid-Victorian, although when it comes to Parolles, all bets are off. He started the play wearing a bright red military jacket, dark trousers (I think), and had a number of multi-coloured scarves hanging from his sash. His jacket was swathed in gold braid and his sleeves were decorated with silver stripes as well.

For the opening scene, a sombre group of people took to the stage. The Countess (Julia Hills), Bertram (Craig Fuller) and Helena (Eleanor Yates) were all in mourning black, while Lafew (Ian Barritt) wore a silver-grey suit. Bertram took his leave of his mother, and with the dialogue being delivered very clearly, I was aware that her parting advice to him was remarkably close to Polonius’ “few precepts”. I was also near enough to see her take a ring off her finger and give it to him, and in between times I spotted Helena, hovering in the background and looking distressed.

Once alone, she confided in us that she wasn’t grieving for her recently deceased father but for the loss of Bertram, whom she loved. She perched briefly on a chair as she told us how she used “to sit and draw his arched brows”, and her distress at not being able to express her love for the man was portrayed very clearly.

She was soon joined by Parolles, played by Paul Currier, whose Turio we had thoroughly enjoyed in SATTF’s Two Gents a few years ago. His Parolles was a little stiff to begin with, but he responded well to Helena’s questions about a woman protecting herself from men, and then how a woman could get the man she wants. The dialogue is a bit tricky here, and I feel we’re probably missing some of the meanings that would have been obvious in Shakespeare’s day, but we could see Helena’s intelligence and started to get a sense of Parolles’ character. It was Lavatch (Marc Geoffrey) who came on to give Parolles the message from Bertram, and he stayed in the main entrance until just before Parolles left. Helena finished the scene by determining to use the king’s disease as her opportunity to win Bertram, and then we were off to the French court to see the king for ourselves.

With a small cast, the French court was naturally more intimate. A courtier and a maidservant were the only people present with the king, although since this was probably his private quarters – the washstand to our left was the clue – that’s not so surprising. The king (Christopher Bianchi) was weary, and in a dressing gown, but still able to get up and walk a bit. After Lafew’s introduction, the king welcomed Bertram warmly, and his words in praise of Bertram’s father were well done, although the speech may have been trimmed a little.

Back at Rossillion, someone was singing a lovely gentle song while the Countess relaxed, presumably asleep, on one of the rattan chairs – it looked dreadfully uncomfortable. Helena came on singing and carrying a notebook; as she finished the song Lavatch appeared in the main entrance. He criticised Helena’s choice of song – simple folk tunes were not to his taste – while the Countess, suddenly speaking up from her chair, asserted her liking for a pleasant tune, well sung, effectively reprimanding him for preferring fancy court music; Lavatch certainly felt reproved, judging by his expression.

The Countess sent Helena off to fetch a book so that Lavatch could have a word with her in private. He began by asking to leave Rossillion, so that he could go to Paris and continue to teach Bertram. The Countess was against this idea; she felt he had taught Bertram all he could and his skills were needed at Rossillion to choose their music and dances. Having been rebuffed once, Lavatch had to up the ante, so he explained to the Countess that he had overheard Helena express her love for Bertram out loud. This is actually Reynaldo’s speech, but it fitted this Lavatch very well, especially as he made it very clear that he considered Bertram at risk from this upstart hen. He assumed the Countess would be of his mind, but she wisely kept her thoughts on such a marriage to herself. She continued to refuse to let Lavatch go to Paris, but decided to test Helena’s feelings for Bertram for herself; fortunately, that young lady returned with her book a few seconds later.

The Countess challenged Helena almost immediately with her declaration “I am a mother to you”. Helena became increasingly disturbed during this conversation, constantly trying to wriggle out of the inevitable conclusion that Bertram was her brother and therefore unavailable for her purposes. The Countess was too determined for her, and eventually Helena had to admit to her feelings for Bertram. She was also reluctant at first to confess that her motive for going to Paris was to see Bertram, but she didn’t keep up the pretence for long. After expressing her confidence that she could indeed help the king, the Countess gave Helena permission to go, and it was clear, and not just from the dialogue, that she would help Helena in any way she could.

Back at court, the king met with the two Dumaine brothers, Charles (Alan Mahon) and Pierre (Callum McIntyre) who were now in military uniform and ready to go to the Florentine war. The king had some words of advice for them – basically beware the charms of the Italian women – and while he withdrew with some of his court, Bertram remained on stage and whinged about not being allowed to go to the war with his mates. Parolles advised him to sneak away to fight, regardless of the king’s commands, and the Dumaines were supportive of that idea. After they left, Parolles urged Bertram to follow them for a longer leave-taking, and the young man took his advice eagerly.

The king returned to the stage in his wheelchair. Lafew came on, and there was a bit of wordplay about kneeling and standing before Lafew asked the king if he would “be cured of your infirmity?” The king’s answer was an abrupt “no”. Lafew’s subsequent references to a “royal fox” eating “noble grapes” had passed me by before, but tonight I heard them clearly and got the reference to Aesop’s fable. He introduced Helena – “Doctor She” – and left her with the king to proffer her aid.

This is a tricky scene, and I’ve often been dissatisfied with it in the past. Tonight it worked very well, flowing naturally through the arguments, and the turning point for Helena was the king’s “I knowing all my peril, thou no art”. Stung a little by that insult, given that her “art” was really her father’s, she rallied and put her points more strongly. She was indeed confident, and willing to risk her life to back up her claims, and this swayed the king to accept her offer. She paused after “not helping, death’s my fee”, before challenging him with “but if I help, what do you promise me?” He listened to her patiently and agreed to her terms, and then she helped him to walk off stage, presumably to give him his treatment.

With the wheelchair removed and a rattan one brought on, the Countess was now due to have some banter with Lavatch, according to my text. In this version, however, Lavatch was singing a song, and after he finished, he told the Countess of a dream he had had the night before, in which, symbolically, Bertram was in grave danger of being trapped by a wicked hussy…need I go on? Lavatch wanted the Countess to send him to Paris so that he could warn Bertram of his peril, but instead the Countess sent him to Helena with a letter.

In Paris, the red sofa was brought on, and as Lafew and Parolles went through their lines, Parolles spread himself on the sofa. That done, the king soon came on, dancing with Helena, and a brisk polka at that! The king sent for his wards of the court, and while he and Helena sat on the sofa to wait for them, the king gave her his ring, telling her to send it to him if she was ever in great need (another addition to the text). After this, three young men lined up facing them, with Bertram to one side (and standing right next to me, front row, right side). Lafew stood to the rear of the sofa, from where we heard his comments.

This was the only scene which I felt wasn’t as clear as it could have been. We got the impression that the three lords were keen to please their king by agreeing to marry Helena, but Lafew’s comments only made sense if he couldn’t hear what was going on. That may be so, but with the entire audience able to hear their words, that option seemed unlikely. I don’t mind that they didn’t suggest any dislike of Helena on the part of the other lords, as it made Bertram’s rejection much darker and stronger, but I do hope they tighten that section up a bit during these previews.

And so to Bertram. As he was beside me, I couldn’t see his expression at all when she named him, but he soon moved out into the middle of the stage to respond to the king, and his arrogant snobbishness was obvious to everyone. The atmosphere became tense as the play plunged into darker territory. At first, the king tried to persuade Bertram to accept Helena as his wife, but when he continued to refuse her, the king grabbed her by the arm to force her on Bertram – “my honour’s at the stake”. After a rather nasty tongue-lashing from the king, Bertram put on a veneer of compliance, and although he didn’t kneel, he did submit to the king’s power. Helena looked increasingly uncomfortable through this episode, having realised that Bertram not only didn’t love her but was horrified at the prospect of marrying her. She only wanted to get away, but the king hung on to her so she couldn’t. When the king announced that they would be married immediately, Bertram looked shocked, and Helena wasn’t any happier.

Once the court had left with Bertram and Helena, Lafew tackled Parolles about Bertram’s apparent change of heart. Parolles took offence at the idea of anyone being his “lord and master”, and the two men were soon sparring verbally, with Lafew getting much the better of the exchange. Parolles took advantage of Lafew’s departure to suggest that he would beat the old man if he saw him again, and he almost had his wish, for Lafew returned shortly to tell him that Bertram was married, and if Parolles had actually had any courage, he could have carried out his threat there and then. But, as Lafew had commented, he was a cowardly chap, and so after some more insults of a similar nature, Lafew left Parolles alone.

Bertram returned briefly, and told Parolles that although he was now married, he was going to run off to the Tuscan wars immediately, instead of staying to consummate the marriage. Parolles naturally wanted to join him, and they both left the stage. Helena came on next, and was met by Lavatch, who gave her the Countess’ letter. When Parolles arrived to give Helena her instructions from Bertram, he and Lavatch had some banter, but I don’t recall the details now.

Next we saw Bertram dressing himself, presumably after getting out of his wedding togs. Lafew was with him, and they discussed Parolles’ character. Lafew was warning Bertram not to trust the man, while Bertram was still confident that Parolles was as described (self-described, that is). Parolles joined them, and when Lafew left, Parolles tried to get his own back by insulting that lord, but Bertram was at least sensible enough to recognise Lafew’s worth.

Helena arrived, and Bertram was relatively distant with her, but not abusive. He gave her the letter for his mother, and despite his behaviour, she seemed to think all was well between them, if a little stiff at present. She plucked up her courage finally to ask for a parting kiss, and he decided to indulge her; it didn’t give rise to any change of feeling in him. She left, and he and Parolles were immediately off to the wars.

They moved Act 3 scene 2 to this point. Back at Rossillion, Lavatch’s comments were severely cut, and after the Countess read Bertram’s letter, which shocked her a great deal, she spoke with the Dumaine brothers. It was clear that they were on their way to join the Duke of Florence, as was Bertram. Helena brought on her letter from Bertram and read out the terrible contents, in which he repudiated the marriage unless she completed some impossible tasks, and the Countess was appalled by his claim that he had “nothing in France until he have no wife”. She went off with the Dumaines to write a letter for Bertram which they could take with them, leaving Helena alone to consider her position.

But this time she wasn’t actually alone. Lavatch was still there, and seeing an opportunity to help his former master, he suggested to Helena that since her marriage to Bertram was unconsummated, she was free to seek a more suitable match for herself. A former dancing master, perhaps? She didn’t have to think for long before she refused him.

Once Lavatch left, she was finally alone, and could let us into her confidence. It was soon clear that she was deeply upset, not least by the idea that she was the reason that Bertram now faced danger on the battlefield. Of course, she didn’t know he’d been gagging to go and fight since he arrived at the court, so she thought that if she left France, he would come back and be safe. She decided to leave Rossillion that night.

Now to Florence, where the Duke came on with the Dumaines and other generals. They ran Act 3 scene 1 together with Act 3 scene 3, so that Bertram arrived half-way through this extended section. I didn’t follow all of the dialogue, but I gathered that the Duke had received a letter from the French king, who wasn’t supporting the Duke as he would have wished. The Dumaines assured him that other French lords would come and help, and Bertram’s arrival, with Parolles, supported that argument. The Duke was concerned about Bertram’s reason for being there, and whether he would be happy to be in the front line, but that young man assured the Duke that he would be happy to fight anywhere. With this, the men all dashed off stage. There was cannon fire off stage during this scene, and Parolles was the only one who flinched and ducked; a nice touch I thought.

This was where they took the interval, and Steve and I consulted on how good it was and how much we were enjoying it. The reworking of Lavatch lifted the whole play to a new level, and I was keen to get back and read the text again to see how much had been changed. We agreed that Lavatch was clearly in love with Bertram, although there was also his snobbish nature to take into account when it came to his dislike of the marriage. Steve felt there was a Chekovian feel to the play now, especially in the Rossillion scenes.

The play restarted with act 3 scene 5 – scene 4 had been consigned to the bin. Diana (Isabella Marshall) and her mother, the widow Capilet (Nicky Goldie), came down the stairs, and with no Mariana, their conversation was naturally curtailed, though some of Mariana’s lines were adapted for the conversation between mother and daughter. The widow was quick to spot that Helena was a pilgrim, and before she took her to their lodgings, they stopped to watch the soldiers go by.

When Helena heard that Bertram was in the group, she was startled, and covered her head with a capacious hood. The women also went up the stairs to get a better view, so they were out of the way of the soldiers in any case. The men came on escorting a prisoner who was taken through and off the stage, presumably to be executed, while the main group of men, including the Dumaines, Bertram and Parolles, stayed behind. They looked in that direction, however, and I waited for a shot or some other sound to tell us that the job had been done: I didn’t hear any. But they must have seen something, because the soldiers left the stage, allowing the women to come back on and for Helena to offer to treat the others to dinner, which they accepted.

The Dumaine brothers then had a go at telling Bertram about Parolles’ weakness of character. He refused to believe them, but agreed to the suggested test of his mettle. When Parolles arrived, still unhappy that their drum had been lost in the last skirmish, they worked on him subtly so that he declared that he would rescue the drum, or die trying. After Parolles left on his mission, Bertram agreed to meet up with the others after he had shown the elder brother his new love, Diana. I noticed that, despite her lowly station in life, Bertram wasn’t averse to making love to her, unlike his behaviour towards Helena.

The dining table was brought on, and soon Helena, the widow and Diana were seated at the remains of their meal. Helena had explained her situation to the other two, and asked for their help in a plot. When she outlined the details, I was glad to see for once that the widow wasn’t just after the money – although she wasn’t against it either – but that she was more concerned about her daughter’s honour. Diana was a bit uncertain at first, but once she understood the nature of the trick, she was happy to help Helena in any way she could.

The Florentine soldiers, led by Pierre Dumaine, found the perfect spot to ambush Parolles, and fortunately for us it happened to be on the stage. They hid behind the pillars and to the side – there were only four or five of them – and again it was lucky that Parolles didn’t spot any of them when he came on. As they suspected, he waited in the clearing so that he could go back a few hours later and claim that he’d at least made an attempt to recover their drum, and while he waited, he pondered out loud on how best to support his lie. I think some of this was cut, although we did get quite a few of Pierre’s asides, and soon one of them crept up behind Parolles carrying a blindfold. The others leapt out and grabbed him as well, and although they had some difficulty getting the blindfold on, their prisoner was very cooperative, and didn’t try to get away. He knelt to one side of the stage as the soldiers spoke their made-up words, and with one of them acting as ‘interpreter’, Parolles was soon offering to give up every secret of the Duke’s army in order to save his own life.

They took him away so that Bertram could be present when they interrogated him, leaving the stage for Bertram himself to flirt with Diana. His lasciviousness was obvious, and he did everything he could with words to persuade her that he was serious about their relationship – what a scumbag! Diana held her own in the arguments, and it was lovely to hear how she picked up his excuse for not giving her his ring, and echoed it back to excuse her not giving up her virginity. This rebuttal gave him pause, and then his “here, take my ring” got a huge laugh – not just a scumbag but an idiot as well.

With Bertram so compliant, Diana easily set up the midnight assignation before he left. Her comments on his wooing were good fun, and then she went up the stairs. Helena came on and met Diana, who had come down the stairs again, giving Helena the ring she’d just been given by Bertram. She then left, Helena went upstairs, and shortly afterwards Bertram came on and followed her. The deed was about to be done.

Some camp stools were brought on for the interrogation scene. Both Dumaine brothers were present this time, but Bertram was otherwise occupied. The brothers discussed his behaviour, and they weren’t complimentary. They skipped the ‘news’ of Helena’s death, and when Bertram arrived, they had Parolles brought on for his interrogation.

The humour of this scene was very good, with Parolles unknowingly insulting Bertram and the Dumaines to their faces. Bertram sat on a stool by one of the front pillars, while the Dumaines either sat or stood as required. Bertram was very unhappy to find out that he had been wrong about Parolles’ character, and none of them were happy about Parolles’ verdicts on their characters. Charles Dumaine was taking a swig out of a hip flask when Parolles accused him of drunkenness, which got a good laugh. Someone gave the interpreter a piece of paper with the questions on it, and as the slanders unfolded, each man was provoked to attack Parolles, but was held back by the other two. It was a very good rendition of the scene, and continued with the reading of the wrong letter, the warning which Parolles had intended for Diana, which showed him in a better light than anything that had happened up to that point.

Bertram was even more angry with his former friend after this, and after some further slanders against the Dumaine brothers, the interpreter informed Parolles that he was to be killed. He asked to be spared, or at least to be able to see, and so they took off his blindfold. He was mortified to discover he was among ‘friends’, and after the others left him alone, he resolved to do better in future. Before that however, a monk came on to deliver a letter to Bertram with news of Helena’s death, and lurked nearby to overhear Bertram’s response. Despite his previous attitude, Bertram was horrified to hear of his wife’s demise, and tore up the paper as he left the stage.

When Helena, the widow and Diana came on stage for the next scene, the ‘monk’ joined them – he was carrying their bags so had clearly been sent by Helena with the misinformation – and the three women set off for France. In Rossillion, Lavatch was now suffering from some kind of madness. His clothes were dishevelled, and his odd language now came into focus as the ravings of a deranged mind. All of this worked very well, and I felt a lot of sympathy for the man, even though he’d been so set against Helena as Bertram’s wife.

After his conversation with Lafew, the Countess came on and we learned of the king’s intention to marry the newly widowed Bertram to Lafew’s daughter. The Countess, though still grieving for Helena, approved of the match, and when Lavatch returned to inform them that Bertram had arrived, they left to greet him.

Helena and her two companions met with the Astringer (a keeper of hawks), who informed them that the king was en route to Rossillion. He willingly took the letter she gave him for the king, and the travellers headed off again. I was pleased to see that Helena wasn’t obviously pregnant at this point. Some productions like to have her eight months gone for the final scene: I know travel was slower in those days, but eight months? I’m happy to take her word for it that she’s pregnant, and I don’t need some bizarre visual confirmation of that, so well done to this production for keeping it simple.

Parolles was dressed in ordinary workman’s clothes when he came on with Lavatch. This supported his resolution to be humble, and while Lavatch was complaining about the smell from Parolles, Parolles was equally able to notice the aroma of unwashed dancing master coming from the other direction. Lines had obviously been added, but again they worked well. When Lafew arrived, he was brusque but kind to the fallen man, and so we were ready for the final scene, the culmination of the play where all the plots would be unravelled and all would end well.

The Countess’ reception area had several chairs, with one being placed between the front pillars. The Countess and the king arrived first, and talked with Lafew for a few minutes before Bertram was called to join them. The king asked for his opinion of Lafew’s daughter, and we learned for the first time that Bertram had originally been hoping to marry her, which partly explains his attitude to Helena when she choose him as a husband. His contrition at Helena’s loss somewhat mollified the king, and it looked like a second marriage was on the cards. However, when Bertram gave Lafew the ring from his finger, as a token to his prospective bride, I saw the king looking at it rather sharply. He called Lafew over to let him see the ring, and declared it to be his own, the one he gave to Helena after she’d cured him and before she chose her husband. Then the fun began.

I’ve always enjoyed the final scene of Twelfth Night, especially where poor Cesario has a host of false accusations made against him. The piling on of pressure and jeopardy makes the happy resolution all the more joyful, and it’s a trick which Shakespeare has repeated here, only with a subtle twist. In Twelfth Night, Cesario is completely innocent. In this play, Bertram is guilty of some of the accusations and believes himself to be guilty of others, and his attempts to wriggle his way out of them does not show him in a good light. But it’s fun for us.

To begin with, the king asked him, quite reasonably, where he got the ring. Bertram was about to tell all, but paused after “in Florence” before adding “was it from a casement thrown me” – liar – having realised that confessing to have received it from a young woman whom he’d just seduced while he was still married (or at least believed himself to be married) to Helena probably wouldn’t play well with the king. The Countess cried out when she saw the ring, recognising it as Helena’s, and the others were all convinced that Bertram had somehow taken the ring from Helena, possibly violently.

Bertram was taken off, and then the Astringer came on with the message from Helena. The king read out the letter, and on finding that Bertram was apparently betrothed to a young Florentine lady as well as to his daughter, Lafew rejected Bertram as his future son-in-law – “I will buy me a son-in-law in a fair…”. The humour was building nicely now, and with the cast being more relaxed and the audience fully warmed up, we were all having a great time.

Bertram was brought back just before Diana came on stage, with her mother hovering in the background. To get out of this new difficulty, Bertram tried at first to claim that Diana was a prostitute, a “common gamester”, but that backfired when she showed them Bertram’s ring, the family heirloom which he had given to her in return, he thought, for her virginity. His reputation, already low, was sinking well below ground level by now.

When asked by the king, she confirmed that Parolles could back up her story, and he was sent for. In the meantime, Bertram just kept digging an even deeper hole for himself. Having denied everything, he now admitted that he had “boarded her i’th’ wanton way of youth” and tried to make out that she had manipulated him to get the ring. Diana offered to return his ring if he gave back her ring, and this led to the king finding out that his own ring, the one he gave to Helena, was the same ring which Diana had given to Bertram.

With everyone’s head spinning at this news, Parolles arrived. I didn’t see him at first, but I heard the laugh, and when I looked round – he came in through the entrance on our left – I saw that he had a large napkin tucked into his collar, and was still carrying some food. He gave his evidence in his usual prevaricating manner, but we got the gist, and then the king turned to interrogating Diana about where she got Helena’s ring. Her answers infuriated him, and she was about to be taken away when she launched into some riddling assertions that Bertram was guilty and not guilty, etc. She sent her mother off to fetch her “bail”, and I could feel my eyes getting moist even before Helena came on with the widow for the final revelations.

Bertram knelt before Helena as she gave him the ring and showed him his letter. His reformation seemed genuine, and when Lafew needed to dry his eyes (he wasn’t the only one) he used Parolles’ napkin as a handkerchief. The king promised Diana a husband – no reactions amongst the throng – and then they called back Lavatch so that they could celebrate with a dance. He was reluctant to get involved at first, but they formed themselves up in pairs and he couldn’t help but go round and give them some instruction, even the king. They said some final lines as they were dancing – may have been the epilogue – and when the dance finished, the lights went down. When they came back up we gave them masses of applause – they took three bows, and looked happy – and we left feeling very glad we’d booked for a second viewing.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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