FringeReview UK 2019
Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director Tom Littler helms this co-production with Guildford Shakespeare Company. With set and costume design by Neil Irish and Anett Black, lit by Mark Dymock with sound design by Matt Eaton and musical arrangements of Fleetwood Mac and Fauré by cast member Stefan Bednarczyk. Movement direction’s by Cydney Uffindel-Phillips, and Assistant Director Indiana Lown-Collins.
For the first time in over a decade Jermyn Street return to Shakespeare – and there’s The Tempest with Michael Pennington next March.
Tom Littler’s co production with Guildford Shakespeare Company of All’s Well That Ends Well is one of a slowly-rising number of productions that tackle this problematic one-sided passion play.
The wonderful, wonderfully-informed Helena seems almost too big for the work she’s in. Poor orphaned daughter of a doctor, she’s brought up in the loving Countess of Roussillon’s home; and in turn loves the Countess’s son, heedless snobbish Bertram, her childhood friend. But uniquely for the period, she’s prepared to fight, even die for him, curing a queen to win the hand of Bertram; then chasing the fleeing, scornful boy across Europe in disguise.
Being Jermyn Street Littler has to play All’s Well as chamber music, which he literally does with a cast of six and sleeked-down script – introducing two upright pianos. Like much of the set they’re initially under sheets. The opening finds Hannah Morrish’s Helena listening to LPs marooned in the late 1970s. It’s Fleetwood Mac which like Fauré’s Dolly Suite is also arranged and played on those pianos by cast member Stefan Bednarczyk alongside Ceri-Lyn Cissone. There’s a call somewhere off. Is Morrish’s Helena here? She is everywhere else.
Late 1970s? Set and costume design by Nel Irish and Anett Black certainly evoke it when Gavin Fowler’s young Bertram gives Helena his peaked cap, departing for the Parisian court to wait on the ailing Queen. And his friend Robert Mountford’s Parolles explodes the period in red-stranded scarves and mauve shirts. Behind the pianos left and right of a central couch (where a Dansette’s taken on and off) there’s a vertiginous arrangement of boxes 45-degrees-on where Helena files items. Movement direction by Cydney Uffindel-Phillips makes adroit use of the auditorium.
It serves as a world briefly opening on perilous seas lit by Mark Dymock to alter the boxes into things rich and strange, with Matt Eaton’s sound design wrapping the theatre in mic-ed up presentations and all-round applause. It’s a mood-swing teenager’s den, centred by Morrish.
More than any production I’ve seen, Littler’s resolves this unequal couple though throws up other questions. The uninhibited affection between Helena and Bertram at the start – hugs, kisses, peaked-cap swap – is that natural exuberance between loving siblings; the text perfectly admits of it. We’re told what’s known as the Westermarck Effect – being brought up together – nullifies sexual attraction. This explains Bertram then, not Helena. Clearly they’ve experienced each other differently: that partly comes back to rank. With a prince and a pauper, it’s the latter more likely to get hooked.
Yet in Helena’s scene with Mountford’s Parolles, their badinage on virginity threatens to subvert the innocence she nominally inhabits. It’s a tricky moment for all Helenas. Morrish suggests Helena’s sheer lack of coyness is all of a piece.
Already a superb Shakespearean, Morrish strikes nearly all the notes; even if the play’s trimming doesn’t quite allow all the tragic amplitude. It’s still nearest to a definitive Helena for a decade. Ardent yet self-betrayingly bashful with the Countess, Morrish reveals Helena’s cloistered fragility and steely naive resolve – one that seizes on an opportunity for her love’s sake alone.
It’s where Miranda Foster’s two roles as Countess and Queen produce such breathtaking tenderness. Foster’s way with inching out Helena’s secret radiates from her eyes. As Countess too she exudes enough warmth to release Morrish’s simple, momentous declaration. Foster manages everything with tiny calibrations, both regal yet encouraging confession from Helena. Foster’s Queen too elicits delicacy whilst afflicted, staunch friendship when healed.
Foster’s Queen pitches up to a hieratic vocality too, initially pinched in pain with the ‘canker’. Transformed miraculously from sickbed to scarlet robe and cheering sound system, Helena’s choice catapults Bertram to displeasure.
Fowler suggests more petulance than the hauteur so easily ascribed to him – here waiting cheek-by-jowl with Mountford in the audience. There’s less cruelty, more disdain for his playmate as mate – dismayed to never leave home sexually. Morrish’s mute dignity ‘let the rest go’ of him clearly isn’t enough for the court: the play explodes to picaresque pilgrimages.
Mountford’s dialled-up braggadocio is a delight and he struts the small stage as if Bertram’s his pupil. All peacock on jet-black, he can shrink down to a shabby groundsheet.
He’s the ballast-weight of comedy to re-balance this work, prompting Bertram’s vital transition to manhood. Parolles’ darkly bright self-knowledge on being found out produces his – and Mountford’s – great moment. Mountford savours each word in a defiant manifesto: ‘Merely the thing I am shall make me live.’
Fowler finds in Cissone’s Captain Dumaine a foil to test Parolles and ease into his own military prowess. Cissone’s pitch-perfect as the sardonic soldier, and later Diana, daughter of Foster’s Widow, a knowing but elfin, shy young women though finding her own force – having suffered at Bertram’s words if not (as he thinks) hands.
Bednarczyk’s unexpectedly physical Lafew crushes Mountford each time they meet, yet provides for him: their exchanges are a sliver of delight. Though confined to court Bednarczyk’s Lafew manages to suggest the whole of it outside the Queen; and registers each character through a court lens. As if he hadn’t enough to do as arranger-pianist.
The denouement’s winningly convincing too. Bertram’s shown as capable of growth in realising his mistake in Parolles, in ignoring Dumaine’s wisdom, and finally in the woman with whom he now knows he shared a passionate, un-brotherly night. The sibling spell’s rapturously broken. The monarch’s normally shaded ‘All yet seems well’ this time admits of no cloud. It confirms a trend of transforming Bertram from the ill grace and hypocrisy some productions left him in. In the 2018 Globe Wanamaker production, it’s confronting his already-born child, bonding a family unit. Littler’s is even more convincing.
To cap it, Littler’s way with the fairy-tale element of this drama might initially couch it in the reverie of a girl. This isn’t idle framing, as we discover with that bedroom knock, but framing to some purpose. Ideally cast, we’re left with the radiant, delicate power of Foster; and Morrish’s Helena: her love’s mute yet ferociously resourceful singleness. Do see this achingly desperate, quietly beautiful production.