The trick that the Royal Family have been seeking to pull-off, ever since the forelock fell out of fashion and the dawn of the media-age first crept across the East wing drawing room, is quite how to mix casualness with grandeur, informality with perennial superiority, approachableness with divine glamour. What the best PR consultants in the land have failed to pull off for an institution that owns half of it, was last night pulled off by a bunch of players who have made a small corner of the Southbank their historical home.
As a living landmark dressed in the clothing of the mythic English ages, the Globe already has that sense of fabric. Tonight the campy trompe l’oeil marble that usually surfaces those trademark pillars is painted over in deep navy blue, and a sombreness of tone and colour pervades the rich Jacobean tailoring, all flamboyant drapery and pointedly-fitted jerkins. The production pays particular attention to its bodies, a regime of stiffened grace, courtly gentility, making for a highly choreographed display of historicity. We almost get a step back from Granville-Barker, in which naturalness is bracketed in favour of attention to stylised form. In contrast to this, the prologue of a hearty folk song, some loose congregational hob-nobbing amongst the groundlings, and an increasingly bizarre closing dance number which morphs from Renaissance-style shapely calves to booty-pushing whoop-whooping street dance – bookends the play with a sense of fun and ease. Yet this informality does not approach bawdiness, couched as it is in terms of a certain humble condescension. These are gracious players, the nobility of their characters comes down smiling to us. The production displays an easy shift of class registers, the social mark of the desirable and acceptable elite.
As we know a Royal wedding in which the groom marries beneath his station is often cause for rank boredom, latent snobbery, flatulence and James Whittaker. These plagues are nothing new, wrought as they are from folk tales and deep national energies – as Shakespeare’s comedy was four hundred years ago. Like Wills, Bertram is a vacant sop with all the passion of a drowned oatcake. Like Katie, Helena is deemed to have some alchemical magic by which to turn middle classness into gold. And Parolles, like royal correspondent James Whittaker, is an idiot.
And like all aristocracies, with their jealously guarded gene pools, tonight there are, politely put, certain eccentricities. Strange shape is lent by the reliably manic Michael Bertenshaw as Lafeu, gurning and mischievous like a Cornish Bucca, his tourettic bursts of energy punctuate the scenes. As Lavatch, Colin Hurley slams his flat Northern vowels against the night air, mournfully comic like an impresario whose club has just been repossessed. Sam Cox’s King confronts his own death with a wild soggy optimism, laconically distant from the lines he later morphs into stoic underplaying, and together with Janie Dee’s calm calculations as the Countess, makes for a lightness at the Sovereign centre.
This levity injures the play on two counts. As a play in which much action takes place offstage, the centre of gravity is let ballooning outward. And as one of the Bard’s “problem plays”, as Frederick Boas minted them, All’s Well’s rich seam of female sexuality becomes unmoored without the authoritarian centre. Where the production handles masterfully the diffuse symbols of aristocracy, the same cannot be done for patriarchy, and Helena becomes hemmed-in and listless. This leaves Ellie Piercy stuck in a register of naivety, subsiding when persuading the King of her plans, in which scenes she rises to a puffy criminal hardness – but that might only be the cast of her face which has a certain spongy dilatory prettiness, like coral in heat. Ultimately however, she comes off less like a female agent twisted in the gears that seek to rule her, than a home-counties child on the way back from ballet practice, her love for Bertram as apparently intense as an ogle from the tinted window of the school-run 4×4 of a preteen with a Bieber cut, and similarly underwrought.
If the show isn’t exactly stolen by Parolles, he gets pretty close to the exit before the alarms go off. Crude and guileful, James Garnon carries intimations of a young Brian Blessed, crossed with something like the plummy down-to-earth bonhomie of a new breed Tory MP. While never quite assailing the heights of that bearded forever-imploding supernova, nor sharing his cosmic indifference to everything in his orbit, he nonetheless shares that same blood-vessel gusto, and eyes that forever hint at some obscured encounter with a red hot poker. Tonight the Tory MP gives him slick charm and slyness, enough to sell you a windfarm while flogging off the forests round the back. Fittingly for a character whose clothes are his soul, he comes dressed like Cinderella after an accident with a pumpkin meringue, sartorial flamboyance as mental illness.
This is not a Globe classic. While there is an admirable sense of construction in the aloofness, and a skilled stirring of the deferential psyche, this courtly disdain trades on our baser instincts. Content is sacrificed for form, and much is lost in the middle. As The King says to the audience, “special nothings ever prologues”.