Caroline Byrne’s recent production of The Taming of the Shrew was beautifully nuanced, troubling, and poignant. She managed to entice the audience through jesting and joviality, only to then reflect back and demonstrate our complicity in the severe misogyny and injustice at play. It was a production that changed how I read Taming, and created a deep sense of discomfort that resonated with contemporary audiences while still remaining faithful to the text.
Now in Rice’s last season, The Winter Selection, Byrne returns to tackle one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. All’s Well That Ends Well is known for its last-minute resolution that feels anything but, and for its internal logic serves the storyline more than the characters or rationality.
One of the troubling bits about All’s Well is Helena’s steadfast love for Bertram, even though he is nothing but awful to her. Instead of rectifying this by, for instance, depicting Bertram as chivalrous or heroic, Bertram becomes an awkward, temperamental and sulky man-child, excellently portrayed by Will Merrick. When Ellora Torchia’s Helena sees Bertram’s true nature, moments before he is about to wed her, a look of disbelief strikes her face. She implores the king of France, the magnetic Nigel Cooke, to desist, but his rage at Bertram’s insolence also silences Helena.
This moment demonstrates Byrne’s talent for unearthing character interiority and re-interpreting the story on stage. In an instant the king’s support for Helena transforms into a trap that disables her from reevaluating her feelings for Bertram, who also shifts suddenly in appearance.
Another excellent aspect of the show is Imogen Doel’s Paroles, the braggart coward who cares more about clothes than character. Doel, who was a glorious Tranio in Byrne’s Taming, delivers another exceptional performance, showing off Paroles’ humour and hubris with a swivelly gait and a lot of sass. Hannah Ringham’s Fool is also a highlight.
As much as Byrne brings out complexity within the first half of the play, challenges arise in the second. Helena tricks Bertram into consummating their marriage through that classic mid-coitus switch, here with Diana, Bertram’s love interest. Paige Carter is fierce and charming as Diana, but the choreography during the switch is utterly bizarre. Limbs slip out of a foam-like door upstage during sex, arms and legs all askew. Resonant music, beautifully composed by Theo Vidgen plays throughout, and makes it unclear whether this is comedic chaos or lyrical choreography. Something gets lost in translation, and thus begins a messy resolution that leaves much unanswered and more unresolved.
Returning from the war to his mother the Countess of Rosillion, boldly but unsteadily played by Martina Laird, Bertram suddenly changes his tune and decides he loves Helena after all. But whether or not he does, it’s hard to see how Torchia’s Helena, a reflective, intelligent and shrewd woman, would still be interested. The ending contradicts the earlier storytelling meticulously sculpted by Byrne. True to tradition at the Wanamaker, the production is entirely lit by candlelight, but more light needs to be shed on the finale. It does not adequately prove that all’s well really ends well, or even why it ends this way at all.
All’s Well That Ends Well is on until 3 March 2018 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.