Of all the places to find a touch of the gothic, Shakespeare’s All’s Well The Ends Well is an unexpected one. Yet from the opening monochromatic entrance of the cast in funereal black to the back-from-the-dead revealing of Helena from behind a Jackie O veil, this is a production with welcome stylistic hints of the macabre. Never is this clearer than in Craig Fuller’s take on Bertram. The playboy Count is here made into the slightly vampiric cousin of Edgar Allan Poe, his early horror at marriage suggested as part of an aversion to all things warm and with beating hearts, not just women.
Fuller’s portrayal of Bertram as a character genuinely traumatised by the idea of being forced into a marriage against their will (normally a fate for the Shakespearean female to battle against) is one part of this production by Andrew Hilton that often plays with the audience’s sympathies. In a work that is more critical of male behaviour than other bard classics, the motives of Bertram are here quite slippery. Despite the second half of the plot rotating on his attempts to trick a woman he obviously plans to abandon into bed, his initial almost hysterical aversion to going anywhere near Helena undoes this idea of him as being interested in sex over commitment. Running off post-wedding night would have been more in keeping with how we are meant to think of him. Instead, in his boyish glee to sod off and be a soldier, Fuller plays him for much of the first half as hopelessly immature rather than hopelessly mean.
The character of Helena (Eleanor Yates) is harder to get a grip on, even in the original text. Her activeness in trying to arrange her own destiny is emphasised here, but the undaunted obsession with a man who, quite frankly, just isn’t that into her (and maybe rightly so since they’ve grown up as something like brother and sister), is hard to perceive as anything other than madness. The plot devise of her ‘tricking’ him into impregnating her begs the question of whether this Shakespearean heroine who may seem more complex or active on the surface is actually a thoroughly unflattering portrait of women.
That said, Yates’ performance of her is attractively and, above all, calmly done. There is nothing dawdling about this show, but the steadiness with which the lines are delivered makes this both an easy production to follow for audiences unfamiliar with this less frequently performed work and adds a certain confidence. Despite the mixed reviews of Hamlet, the other half of the 2016 season, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory as a company are predominantly a safe bet for providing an accomplished and stylishly executed performance, and All’s Well can be counted as such.
Julia Hills as the black robed Countess lying in the Mediterranean sun provides a composed centrepiece to the mayhem unfurling around her. This whole business is, we assume, a great nuisance to her when she could be supine under a tree (although there is the suggestion she enjoys the gossip). The dappled light pattering through the leaves is recreated perfectly by Matthew Graham’s lighting design. Lavatch (Marc Geoffrey) is played less for laughs in this production and instead morphs from being the Countess’s slightly sweaty sycophant to full of melancholy at Bertram’s errant ways.
Last week I left a production of Forever Yours, Mary-Lou at the Ustinov in Bath feeling like I had been hit in the face. The bitter taste of adrenaline made me nauseous. All’s Well That Ends Well by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory is not theatre that has a comparable effect, nor is it theatre that will change the world, but dismissing it as ‘easy watching’ would be to do it a disservice. In terms of cast, costume, setting and delivery it is almost unfaultable. Yet if there was one thing missing it was that sense of daring present in Romeo and Juliet in 2015. With all the fundamental elements so safely in the bag, a welcome direction for the next season would be to do something much more risky. It has, after all, been 400 years.
All’s Well That Ends Well is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for tickets.