Review – All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th September 2022

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well – it’s a phrase we all use, but are we all familiar with the play? I suggest not; which is rather perplexing, because of the three Shakespearean Problem Plays (the others being Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) this is the play that has the greatest potential to be a crowd-pleaser. And Blanche McIntyre’s current production for the RSC demonstrates that quality in an often hilarious, always thought-provoking, occasionally confusing way.

Helena and BertramIn a nutshell – orphan Helena was taken into care by the kindly Countess of Rossillion but has fallen in love her son, Bertram. The Countess is fine with this; Bertram not so much, as he feels his status is somewhat better than marrying “a poor physician’s daughter”. Reluctantly he weds her on the instruction of the King of France, who owes Helena a favour for having saved his life (long story). But Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars on his wedding night with his pal Parolles (who’s no better than he ought to be.) Helena follows him and tricks him into bed by pretending to be Diana, a local girl with whom Bertram has become infatuated (we need to suspend disbelief on that front). Helena becomes instantly pregnant (it worked that way in those days) and, following a public humiliation at the French court, Bertram eventually agrees to stick with Helena; thus all’s well that ends well.

King of FranceMcIntyre has brought 17th century France and Florence bang up to date with a 2022 world of social media, online gaming, smartphones and selfies. This contemporary setting works well for the play’s characterisations and interactions, and of course has the prospect of opening up the play to a younger generation of theatregoers. However, I’m not sure that Helena’s magic “prescriptions” that she dispenses to transform the health of the ailing King of France quite make sense in what must also be a world of advance scientific breakthroughs – we need to suspend disbelief on that front too. But it’s a fun concept – and, if anything, could have been taken a little further. The back projections of social media interaction never stay there for long, and I don’t think there was much in the way of trolling, which would have been very relevant!

Countess and LavacheRobert Innes Hopkins has designed a fascinating structure that looms on top of or over the stage the whole time, like a huge shuttlecock. It works pretty well – reminding you of perhaps a conservatory at the Rossillion residence, or a tarpaulined tent in the war scenes. The costumes show a nice divide between the haves and have nots – the Countess wears classy trouser suits, Bertram and the King are a dapper pair of clothes horses, and Helena makes do with something pleasant and practical from Primark. The military fatigues are stock standard camouflage gear, and Parolles comes dressed in a pseudo-military, pseudo-flamboyant outfit, reflecting the character’s shallowness and duplicity. There’s a very effective scene where Parolles gets all his kit off apart from his comic book hero underpants, and especially removes a sturdy stocky torso covering, exposing himself to the elements rather like Edgar’s Mad Tom, thereby revealing that, underneath it all, this big wannabe burly hero is actually just a bit of a weakling like you or me.

Countess and LafewSome extremely good performances brighten up the show enormously – and maybe highlight the fact that one or two of the performances are perhaps slightly tentative. Rosie Sheehy commands the stage from the start as the forthright Helena, her voice full of confidence and assertiveness, perfect for the role of the young woman who knows what exactly she wants and is determined to get it at all costs. Claire Benedict’s Countess is superbly dignified, fair-minded, and naturally gracious; it’s not surprising that she would have extended her kindness to looking after Helena.

Dumain and BertramIt struck me that Shakespeare doesn’t give the actor playing Bertram many memorable juicy lines to establish his full character, but Benjamin Westerby makes a good job of portraying his young callousness and poor decision-making. Bruce Alexander is very good as the King of France, all wheezy and feeble at first, then properly regal later; he comes into his own in the final scene where he adjudicates in the Bertram/Helena/Diana love triangle, with beautifully timed vocal tics and challenging expressions.

Parolles and the guysAmong the lesser characters I really enjoyed the performance by Simon Coates as Lafew, the old courtier who’s seen it all and naturally gets the better of a jumped-up little chappie like Parolles in a series of truly hilarious vocal skirmishes. I also loved Eloise Secker as the Younger Dumain, for whom the pricking of pomposity comes as a fine art. Perhaps best of all, Jamie Wilkes’ Parolles is a wonderful comic creation; if ever the phrase all mouth and trousers was designed to fit anyone, it would be this fellow. Mr Wilkes gives us some terrific breaking the fourth wall moments, full of braggadocio for anyone who will stop still and listen until he’s captured and becomes the biggest Squealer since Animal Farm. It’s a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining; he makes you wonder why All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t get performed more.

Duke of Florence and armyThe final moment on stage (which I shan’t reveal) simply and effectively drives home the uncertain future that faces the young couple. This isn’t all sweetness-and-light, it’s a tale full of bitterness and disloyalty which the production conveys extremely well. I confess I occasionally lost track of what was going on, particularly with the war scenes, and the D-Rum concept, and the energy did sag occasionally. But I thought this was a very brave stab at bringing back a rarely performed play and giving it a new relevance for today. Lesson: beware of girls in fluorescent wigs at discos.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Richard III, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1st July 2022

Richard IIIThe Royal Shakespeare Company continues its trawl through the annals of the House of Plantagenet, specifically following on from the recent productions of Rebellion and Wars of the Roses, with this strikingly designed new production of Richard III, and a satisfying continuity of casting in many of the leading roles, including the welcome return of Arthur Hughes as King Richard, the first time a disabled actor has taken this part in the history of the Company.

Arthur HughesEdward IV reigns as King of England, but Richard, Duke of Gloucester has other ideas. First, eliminate his kindly brother George, Duke of Clarence. Then marry Lady Anne, who had been previously married to Henry VI’s son Edward of Westminster, who died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward IV dies naturally, but Richard can’t tolerate his son, the twelve year old Edward V, being king. He enlists the Duke of Buckingham to engineer his path to the throne, but when Buckingham refuses to kill Edward, he gets professional assassin Tyrell to do the deed instead. The young prince is murdered in the tower along with his brother. But it’s still not enough; and when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, arrives with an army to claim the throne, it results in the Battle of Bosworth Field and we all know what happened there. (You don’t? You’ll have to see this play then.)

Nicholas ArmfieldShakespeare didn’t hold back from presenting Richard as the architect of a lot of blood and violence, and Gregory Doran’s production rings the changes by portraying these deaths in a wide range of styles, from the literally gory to the subtly suggested. It is perhaps curious that Shakespeare does not let us see the actual death of King Richard in battle: “Alarums. Enter King Richard and Richmond; and exeunt fighting. Retreat and flourish. Re-enter Richmond, Stanley bearing the crown, with divers other Lords, and Forces.” This gives a director carte blanche to finish Richard III off in whatever manner they wish, and Mr Doran has chosen to make it rather elegant and ethereal. Matt Daw’s inventive lighting design is used extensively to convey death, with maybe a quick flash of red light to depict one dispatch, or the visceral descent of vivid red seeping down the one feature of the set, a cenotaph-style tower, to suggest others. Death’s never far away in this play.

Matthew Duckett and Arthur HughesI know this isn’t a football match, but this production really is a game of two halves. Even with some judicious cutting, this is a long play, and the first Act takes us all the way from Shakespeare’s beginning to Act Four Scene One. The second Act begins with Richard’s coronation, Act Four Scene Two. As a result, we have more or less two hours before the interval, but then little more than an hour afterwards. Although there are obviously some highlights – the wannabe king’s pretence that he doesn’t seek the crown and is much happier with his virtuous Bible study is a sheer delight –  the first Act has more than its fair share of longueurs. The second Act, however, is stuffed with theatrical magic and flies by. The exquisite grandeur of the Coronation. The knife-edge debate between Richard and Elizabeth regarding his plan to marry her daughter. The superb staging of the Ghosts that taunt Richard the night before Bosworth Field, and how they merge to become his ghostly horse for which he’d give his kingdom.

Minnie Gale as MargaretHowever, the overall vibe of the production is distinctly uneven. It veers from bloodthirsty tragedy to deep dark farce, and you can never quite pin down exactly what it is that Doran wants us to take away from it. On the one hand, for example, you have a very traditional presentation of the bereft Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, with Minnie Gale giving a very accomplished portrayal of someone so destroyed by grief that they have lost all their senses. On the other hand, the two murderers almost descend to vaudeville with their interchanges and re-appear very tongue-in-cheek as the two godly clerics either side of Richard when’s he allegedly resisting being made king. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set suggests the staging is purely of its actual era – the music, the costumes etc are all truly fifteenth century; but then you have a couple of anachronistic piece to camera moments from Richard and his rival Richmond just before the battle as if we were watching CNN.

Eloise Secker and Mical BalfourFortunately the production is blessed with some terrific performances, none more than Arthur Hughes as Richard. Because Mr Hughes genuinely has a physical disability, that frees him up from the arduousness of adopting a stoop or mimicking a hunchback, so visually it’s a much more convincing presentation than you’ve ever seen the character before. With ambition written through him like a stick of rock, he fair darts about the stage in his quest to Get Kingship Done, as the phrase might be today. He doesn’t care if we like him or not; he sees other people as either useful tools or mere obstructions and has no compunction about dismissively eliminating them – even his own wife. Mr Hughes is completely riveting throughout the play, his eyes calculating risks, his gestures mocking all those around him, his vocal delivery conveying that spoilt petulance of a man who can see no other outcome than his own preferment. It’s a wonderful performance.

Claire BenedictKirsty Bushell is also superb as Queen Elizabeth Woodville, controlling her own grief and behaviour with quiet suppression, as a perfect contrast to the brashness of the King, or the loud lamentation of Margaret. Claire Benedict has fantastic stage presence and natural authority as the Duchess of York, and Rosie Sheehy cuts exactly the right amount of fury and suffering as Lady Anne. Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham is delightfully conspiratorial, punching the air with a very un-Shakespearean Yes! when Richard manipulates his way to the throne. Micah Balfour is excellent as the good-humoured, trusting Hastings, Nicholas Armfield is a suitably noble Earl of Richmond (he also has a terrific moment as the Bishop of Ely when King Richard commends his strawberries), and there’s great support from Matthew Duckett as Catesby and Simon Coates as Stanley.

Joeravar Sangha and Conor GleanIn addition, Ben Hall absolutely captures Clarence’s innocence and shock at being fatally lied to, and Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are simply brilliant as the Murderers. And huge appreciation for our Boy Treble, whose vocal purity cut through the villainy like a sword of light; for our performance on Friday night, we think he was Lysander Newton, but I am sure all four taking the role are terrific.

Jamie WilkesPart gruesome drama, part black comedy; at times slow and cumbersome, at others jam-packed with incident. A bit like life, really. But it’s the many highlights that you remember and that you appreciate, and this production is certainly a convincing and memorable end to the Plantagenets. It continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre all the way through till 6th August when it is joined with the new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, and then both continue until 8th October.

 

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!