All’s Well That Ends Well isn’t performed very often, so it is always really a refreshing change from the normal schedule when a production comes along. After seeing Marianne Elliot’s stunning fairy tale version at the national a few years ago, it is hard to envisage how the play might be staged without the fairy tale setting. Nancy Meckler’s current production for the RSC does bring in some fairytale elements, but the key backdrop to this production is a brutal war which Alex Waldmann’s Bertram is determined to join.
When the audience enter the auditorium, they are faced with a rather sparse stage. There’s what looks like a railway arch in the background with the words, ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ projected on it. Maybe, it is meant to be a club, because the production starts with a scene from a night out with Bertram clearly having fun, getting very drunk, and at one point taking his shirt off. We are shown the end of the night, as he has received the news that his father had died, and he has to be helped home by Helena, because he is roaring drunk and unable to stand on his own. It was clear from this opening that Helena is in love with Bertram and that he doesn’t really notice her. Bertram is interested in being in the company of men, having a lads night out, and training for the war. When he is forced to marry Helena, which her reward for curing the King of France, this is an excuse for him to run away and to join the wars in Italy.
For a moment, the opening gives a promise of Grease. Helena, like Sandy, falls in with a glamorous playboy, who at first rejects her but she gets her man in the end. However, this production takes a different trajectory from Grease, and observes the sadness and patience of Helena and the slow realisation of what responsiblity is for a young man growing up. Helena does not have to glam up to get her man, but uses her wits and intellect to carefully respond to his challenge .
In the current RSC season, Maria Aberg’s production of As You Like It explores the performance of gender. In contrast, this production presents gender as innate rather than socially constructed. It explores a dichotomy between masculinity and femininity as aggression versus nurturing. In the Director’s Talk last night (24th July) a member of the audience made the comment that the different textures seen in the back of the set could represent male and female qualities. Nancy Meckler adds a scene where the soldiers in Italy become extremely sexually aggressive and the action becomes very shocking. It is only the intervention of Diana’s mother (Karen Archer) that protects the women from sexual violence. The scene brings into realisation that Bertram’s treatment of Helena (and Diana) is also extremely shocking as psychological and physical abuse.
Alex Waldmann gives both a solid and stunning performance and is able to depict Bertram with a clear narrative arc that explores how the character starts off as a young adolescent and finishes the play as a wounded and broken man. Alex Waldmann said that an influence was Prince Harry in an interview with the Oxford Times. Nancy Meckler reiterated Prince Harry’s influence on the character influence in the Director’s Talk. There is a little bit of his King John in Waldmann’s approach to Bertram with that kind of arrogant dismissiveness, and an unwillingness to take responsibility. Though Bertram has matured by the end of the play, Waldmann’s realisation of the character presents him as having suffered both physical and mental pain on the way to this maturity. The scar that appears on the side of Bertram’s face is a stark reminder that war is about physical combat. When Bertram makes love to Helena in the bed trick scene, he is damaged, grieving and feeling the pain of loss. This moment actually becomes a poignant moment, and a pivotal moment in the production. At the end of the production, I really felt that Bertram was sorry and that the experience of fighting in a war had shaken him. He continues to lie because he is confused and battered. In the final scene, his whole physic seems shrunken and broken. For this production, Waldmann has shaven off his beard making seem extremely young and vulnerable.
Jonathan Slinger is very entertaining as Parolles, and as he did with his portrayal of Malvolio in last season’s Twelfth Night, he can also make an audience feel the discomfort when the comedy moves into darker moments and his character is humiliated. In the scene where Paroles, blindfolded and terrified for his life, betrays his company, and the moment becomes both humorous and sad. This is also a moment, where Bertram is faced with the betrayal of his friend, and it startlingly mirrors his own betrayal of Helena.
Joanna Horton plays Helena in such a way that the unrequited love seems ingrained in her whole being. The scene when she admits she loves Bertram to the Countess (Charlotte Cornwall) is played with particular tenderness by both actresses. Horton’s is a polished quiet performance which works so well in contrast to Waldmann’s performance as Bertram. There are some lovely moments where both of them use facial expressions to reveal their emotion. For example, when Helena chooses a husband, she is delighted, and he is ambivalent.
Greg Hicks, playing the King of France, looked as if he had retrieved his King Lear wig from a black bin bag liner. There are also echoes of his Lear as he the King of France is pushed around in the wheelchair about to be reconciled with Cordelia in the 2010-11 production of King Lear (dir David Farr). However, Helena’s miracle cure gives Hicks the opportunity to demonstrate his impressive capoeira skills, and the recovery seems more miraculous and magical. At this point, I was feeling sorry for Greg Hicks’ understudy who might have to give this part of the performance a different aspect.
There are echoes of the current production of As You Like It, as Helena is revealed in a white dress at the back of the stage. The ending has changed in the previews. At the first preview, there was some hesitation and echoes of the ending of recent productions of Measure for Measure. Would Helena take Bertram’s hand? The production settles on a happy ending, but an ending that left me feeling that this young couple would have to work hard to make their marriage work.
Apart from a perspex box which comes from the back of the stage every now and again, the set tends to be uncluttered. The multimedia is very effective, but it is best seen from the front of the stage rather than the side of the stage. The set is beautifully lit by Tim Lutin. The narrative is well told and I thought very clear.
The language of ensemble seems to have left the RSC vocabulary since Michael Boyd’s departure. However, it is great to see the current main house company growing with each piece of work that opens and becoming much stronger as they continue to work together, which was part of Boyd’s vision for the RSC. It as Greg Doran said in an interview that he gave on taking on the role of Artistic Director that you can’t cast an ensemble, and that a company becomes an ensemble as they grow confident working together. Some of this company worked together in last year’s Swan season and have already opened in Hamlet and As You Like It. In current RSC productions, the Company are making the minor roles as interesting as the lead roles. For example, it is really great to see Mark Holgate being given a little more to do as First Lord Dumaine and Natalie Klamar as Diana being able to demonstrate her range of talents. David Fielder gives an excellent solid and sure performance as Lafew who is able to forgive and exhibit humanity.
I am hoping to see some of the Company back in Stratford next year. I especially would like to see Alex Waldmnann return because, after following him through his performances as King John and Catesby through to Horatio, Orlando and Bertram, I am interested in seeing how he approaches other roles. He is clearly an actor that is becoming extremely polished in all his performances. In each production that I have seen him in, he brings both a sense of thoughtful creativity and vigour to his performance, making sure that each gesture and speech is nuanced which feels so fresh and natural. Waldmann is able to play very young, but with a maturity that he has now gained from playing several major roles with the RSC.
My Storify Page (I will add reviews as they come out).
Greg Doran interview at the Shakespeare Institute. (Jan 24th 2013)
Previews and Reviews