FringeReview UK 2018
Caroline Byrne re-invents an All’s Well for our time with dramaturg Annie Siddons. Colin Richmond’s pewter and ebony effects on the floor is blazoned with Ben Ormerod’s candles. Theo Vidgen’s music often suggests Eurthymics on viols. Una Palliser’s ensemble deserve high praise for this sonic infusion. Eddie Kay choreographs.
All’s Well That Ends Well should be one of the most rewarding of all Shakespeare’s plays to stage now. Its central role of Helena gifts blind love and courage against disdain, and a quivering tenderness at its heart revealed first not to the man, but his mother and later, a widow and her forward, feisty daughter with whom Helena shares a bed-trick. This monstrous regiment of women didn’t go down too well for obvious sexist reasons. Afterwards, the sheer inequality of feeling between Helena and her object has militated against many revivals. But this Bertram’s no psychopath and there are resolutions. So why’s it still so neglected?
It’s a play Caroline Byrne seems born to direct, judging by her The Taming of the Shrew which re-aligned misogyny in a post-Trump world. Here – with dramaturg Annie Siddons – she makes textual decisions indeed scythings that will endure purist mouth-frothing. And following the NT’s Malvolia here the braggart coward Captain Paroles is feminised. It’s an interesting decision leading to unexpected resonances.
Colin Richmond’s pewter and ebony effects on the floor is blazoned with Ben Ormerod’s candles, some extinguished in the bath emerging from the floor. They’re more like Pluto’s torches, everything burning to blue blackness. It’s an impossibly gloom-laden production, blinding us with a parry of lights. Atmospheric certainly, but often there’s no face behind the hand-held fires. Theo Vidgen’s music often suggests Eurthymics on viols, and it’s marvellously evocative too. Hamlet’s ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’ doggerel is astonishingly lifted for a nuptial song. At other points new lyrics sung by a defiantly sexual Helena go down terrifically, though singing ‘I will swallow you’ might suggest more than her desire to simply absorb, consume her lover. But eroticised these scenes certainly are. Una Palliser’s ensemble deserve high praise for this sonic infusion, often ruffling the candle-lit rippling of the tiny bath. Apart from the lighting, it’s pretty magical.
Helena the poor orphan of a famed doctor is the beloved ward of the Countess of Rossillion, whose son Bertram she loves: he disdains her low birth. Helena seeking a boon gets permission to try a miracle cure of the King of France (for failure she urges death, success her choice of husband). Helena, here Ellora Torchia, performs this arms raised over the naked bathed king, crumbling herbs in an incantatory ritual redolent of the magic this tale derives from (originally Boccaccio). When Bertram deserts her with their marriage unconsummated, she aims to overcome his disdainful challenge, still a virgin, to get with child by him and claim his ring. She thus follows him as he deserts to battle advised by the slippery Paroles. Battle done, she reveals her plans to the mother/daughter team where Paige Carter’s equally spirited Diana, importuned by the lusty Bertram, agrees to substitute Helena for herself. Here Diana does so with more than a hint of regret, and we almost see the maid Diaphanta who fails to leave the bed for the substitution.
Vocally there’s some sawing up of the verse without sense on occasion, though at the very least it compensates for the impossibly tenebrous goings-on with blow-torch vocal projection. Though occasionally sawing the verse with the best, Torchia’s vocally strong and it’s gratifying that we can hear the younger performers clearly – which hasn’t always been the case at this venue.
Torchia’s Helena possesses less of the incoming artistic director’s tenderness that filled the whole Olivier with a whisper, which this space might be made for. She is though appealingly right-spirited, ardent, fit for flight and resolution. Torchia’s Helena possesses a glow beyond the reach of candles you can bask in. Her temper’s fixed by the way she breaks into her passionate avowal of love to Bertram’s mother, who’s been angling for it. This can be almost heartbreaking, and here at least it’s true and strongly-felt. Martina Laird seems a rather merry dowager, fitter even more for the part of Widow (mother of Diana) she plays later.
Laird too displays presence and energy rather than the gravitas normally expected. There’s little reason she has to be as old as she’s portrayed, though in a casting world rendering women invisible, it’s a bit of a steal. Carter’s Diana really comes into her own in Act V when she defies the king and courtiers to make her case. At this pitch you hope she finds what she’s looking for too, armed with Helena’s gift of dowry.
Imogen Doel adds to the cast of women in her winking puff of a role as Paroles. This gender shift works on several levels. Paroles is a woman soldier (rather impossible in this period garb, but this is magic) trying to over-compensate when up against male colleagues. It’s edgily contemporary and believable. Doel relishes the sudden shifts of self-revelation, the shameless cut-Falstaff asides, the pure effrontery of confession when she thinks she’s about to be executed. But she’s left in the little dungeon space (the same that contained water) looking up unvarnished, vulnerable and in some terror. You think of the women soldiers in Deep Cut barracks. Though Paroles recovers and is even restored to disfavour and won’t starve, that image of the staring Doel out-haunts all her previous braggadocio.
Will Merrick’s the first wholly redemptive Bertram I’ve seen. Petulant even cruel as Bertram has to be, Byrne decides on several redemptive strokes. The first is his shock on reading that Helena is dead. It doesn’t stop him seducing Diana who thrusting out limbs between the main door cracks seems (as we’ve seen) a bit reluctant to swap with Helena. Merrick’s Bertram though is still capable of abusing Diana roundly – and she happily him. It’s only the devastating entrance of Helena, with a child she’s borne that stupefies him. So much so that he’s rendered incapable of this final lines, as is the King. Merrick is in fact mesmerised, only now realising the woman he ‘so sweetly used’ is Helena. It’s the key moment Shakespeare allows for a sexual recognition that changes everything for him, and here it’s stripped as it were to just that. The silence after is brazen. It’s bold, and not entirely Shakespeare, but the silence is more than convincing on its own terms. The final moment is astonishingly moving, as Bertram takes from Helena their child, and we see the most improbable nuclear family in Shakespeare bond in the tenderness that Helena all along embodies, under her armour.
There are strongly-taken roles by Nigel Cooke as the King, Robert Pickvance’s Lafeu (whose daughter Mariana, Louise Mae Newberry Bertram wanted to marry), Buchan Lennon and Shaun Mason as the martial brothers Dumaine, and Hannah Ringham’s audience-twitting Clown. This is an All’s Well to believe in, and plucks, just this once, a happiness Helena so richly deserves with a husband who equally doesn’t. It’s a must-see, if you can see through the candle flames.