Playwrights have long had a fascination with the psychology of soldiers, with how men behave in times of war. This was true of Shakespeare too. In the rarely performed All’s Well That Ends Well, the young and caddish Bertram heads off to battle to get away from a wife he does not love and returns a changed man.
Helena is “a poor physician’s daughter” and the ward of the Countess of Roussilon. She is in love with her mistress’ son, Bertram. After she heals the sick King of France, he allows her to take any man she chooses and she, of course, picks Bertram. The two marry, but the love is unrequited and he heads off to war with his companion Parolles. It is a story of battles, love and reconciliation, and has a fairytale aspect to it which is captured by Katrina Lindsay’s stark set which often opens like a storybook to reveal important moments.
But despite raising interesting questions about the nature of love and war, Nancy Meckler’s minimalist production fails to make much of an impact. Meckler draws attention to the rift between the worlds which Helena and Bertram inhabit; the back wall is split into two, one side of reddish brick and the other filled with beautiful projections of nature, whilst Keith Clouston’s music finds aural motifs for the couple which slowly wind their way together as the production progresses and is accompanied by gendered choreography by Liz Ranken. But the scenes themselves feel static, lacking passion and energy.
To an extent, this is to be expected from a play in which the majority of ‘action’ happens off-stage and all we get is reportage. It is a play about cause and effect, and you really get a sense that Shakespeare is trying to understand what makes his characters tick. Meckler, however, injects certain startling images but doesn’t let them hang. You get the feeling there are many missed opportunities lurking just around the corner, struggling to be let loose.
Smartly, however, the patriarchal overtones of the play are quashed by the cast. Alex Waldmann’s Bertram is a scoffing, pernicious young man who is only tamed and repentant when Natalie Klamer’s waspish, joyful Diana plays a bed-trick on him. The two fools of the play, Parolles and Lavatch, are equally incompetent with Jonathan Slinger and Nicholas Tennant’s performances demonstrating the sheer selfishness of the two men. Even Greg Hicks’ King of France, whose deeds would suggest kindness and compassion, is a slimy domineering figure. All of which leaves Charlotte Cornwell and Joanna Horton to pick up the pieces, remaining calm and strong throughout. Horton, though sometimes a little pathetic when not speaking, is able to control the space when speaking to others, and shows a clear progression from doting wife to woman-as-equal.
Though All’s Well is listed as a comedy in the First Folio, and there are a good few mistaken identity stories, it’s not a play which really lends itself to laughing-out-loud. The company do a good job of finding the humour where it matters, but at other times try a little too hard to pull out the innuendo, meaning the already flat scenes fall even flatter. Lindsay’s design (lit with powerful block colours by Tim Lutkin) is never dull to look at and, like Hytner’s Othello, uses a moving box for smart scene changes, but as is often the case with this production its starkness can grate after a period of time.
Though Meckler and her team have managed to breathe life into a relatively unknown and problematic play, the points they make are not hugely original, failing to offer any insight beyond the discourse of theatre of recent years. There are many moments of brilliance here, but when the other productions in the season have the passion of Helena, it’s hard not to feel deflated by something that, like Bertram, hasn’t quite decided what it is.
Read Dan Hutton’s interview with Alex Waldmann.