REVIEW: All’s Well That Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

In forty years of theater going, I had never seen William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well so it was a delight to travel up to Stratford upon Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production on a summer evening. The beautiful setting by the river where we sat for an hour before dining a three-course meal in the excellent the Rooftop Restaurant of the theater was a perfect prequel to the play. Yet this production of what is often described as a “problem play” fell far short of these expectations in part due to the restricted view from the stalls seat alongside the stage left walkway from the thrust stage to the back of the auditorium. No doubt other audience members had a different experience to ours but the director Blanche Mcintyre’s decision to frequently place cast members where the walkway joins the stage quickly caused the Scene 1 irritation to change to frustration and became a massive distraction so that the performances could not be enjoyed.

In well over a third of the scenes, a character (often it seemed the lead Bertram) stood upright facing upstage with their back to the walkway addressing another character in perfect alignment so we could see neither’s face. Clearly, a thrust stage encounters this problem frequently and directors ought to be aware of the effect and have sightlines and blocking checked. Characters can move and turn to draw the audience in, and the upstage characters’ position can be varied moving more centrally onto the thrust rather than standing upstage. If you can’t see the performer’s face and emotional expressions, it’s very hard to engage with Shakespeare’s language unless it is delivered with a perfect rhythm and tone and too often this cast failed to do so.

The Director’s concept and vision for solving the “problem” of the play were to set it in a modern-day social media world where scene changes were covered by projections of screenshots from cast members phones. These flashing images may have been witty and clever, but they passed so quickly that they just added to the confusion. There were hints of references to modern atrocities such as child grooming, predatory behaviours, and jihadist executions and the infamous “bed trick” switch was changed to a garish rave with Helena and Diana in green, fluorescent wigs. However, it was difficult to believe Bertram was fooled by the switch. All this may have been designed to attract a young demographic to Shakespeare’s birthplace and justified as reflecting the real world today just as Shakespeare would have done in his day, but it has to assist the narrative and the performers in the storytelling not distract from it.

Claire Benedict and Bruce Alexander as the Countess and King of France brought a strong formal regal air to the play speaking the words with great understanding and clarity and conveying the meaning with passion and strength. Both got into their stride when freed from the upstage props that hampered their early scenes, the Countess awkwardly behind a large desk and the King in a ludicrous NHS hospital bed. Of course, nothing can explain the miraculous cure he experiences from his death bed to sprightly and energetic arbitrator between the couple. Simon Coates provides excellent support to them as Lafew with some good comic touches and lovely clarity of delivery.

Central to the story must be a believable infatuation and desire of Helena for Bertram and Bertram for Diana which causes the events we see. But from Helena’s first appearance dressed as a very young-looking schoolgirl to her final confrontation as a heavily pregnant wife, we never sense her love or adoration for Bertram. Rosie Sheehy does however pack in the emotions of pain, strain and distress and engages the audience well in her soliloquies. Benjamin Westerby as Bertram never convinces either portraying a rather weak man that is hard to believe women are falling for all over France and Italy. Olivia Onyehara as a very young-looking innocent Diana seems too young to even engage with him as she does.

The best characterization is Jamie Wilkes as Parolles who engages the brilliantly audience in his opening scene and then gradually deconstructs the personality as the play progresses, losing his American accent and self-confidence and finally his including a rather too obvious Rambo-esque muscle suit . He executes an amusing Proscenium arch entrance to great comic effect and has good business with his DRUM. The overly long mock execution scenes are painful to watch and add nothing to the narrative. At least in the final scenes, he appears to get his mojo back! There are too many other superfluous characters like Lavache dressed in a mini the minx jumper or the Lords of the court who play on an Xbox that add nothing to the storytelling.

The setting too does not help the narrative with a large metal dome that creaks as is hoisted into position to support a curtain for court scenes that travels nosily into position and then is extensively dressed in green canvas for the second act without adding much to the setting . The period chairs seem at odds with the hospital beds and projected Images. The eight musicians could have been used much better to cover the noisy scene changes.

This is known as a “problem” play and perhaps my problems with the production would have been lessened if I was sat with a proper view of the performances, if I was twenty years younger and lived my life on social media or if I had seen the play before and could relate to the changes they had made. Perhaps others watching will bring that knowledge to their experience. As it was the occasional well-spoken lines of Shakespearean verse by the senior characters, the delightful engagement of the audience by Parolles and Helena in the early scenes and the energy and effort of the ensemble that were, for me, overwhelmed by the choices made by the Director and as a result, all was not well by the end.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★

Seat: Stalls, G 30 | Price of Ticket: £65

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

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