All's Well That End's Well (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 25th July 2013)

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.

Further Information

My Storify Page (I will add reviews as they come out).

Greg Doran interview at the Shakespeare Institute. (Jan 24th 2013)

Previews and Reviews’s-Well-That-Ends-Well—RSC-Stratford-on-Avon-79206.html–76440.html


Looking for Richard III (RSC March to Sept 2012 and The Globe, 29th September 2012)

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It’s often the case that there are several productions of the same Shakespeare play around at the same time.  I saw the Globe production of Richard III on 29th September after seeing the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) production develop over the summer from its first previews in March until the final performance in September.

The RSC production took a minimalist approach to staging and which made use of light bulbs that descended to indicate a character was about to die.  The costumes suggested that the RSC production had a modern setting, but the inclusion of armour and the sword fight at the end added a timeless element.  On the other hand, the Globe production was an original practice performance. It attempted to represent some of the playing conditions on the original Globe with male actors playing female parts and the audience sitting in the boxes above the stage.  The result of this was a visually stunning production with bright dynamic colours and rich textures.

What was striking when seeing the productions around the same time was the very different approaches to Richard that Mark Rylance at the Globe and Jonjo O’Neill at the RSC took.  Where O’Neill bustled on stage, Rylance, in contrast, bumbled as if surprised at finding himself in the middle of a play.  If Antony Sher was the bottled spider and Simon Russell Beale was the bunch backed toad, then Rylance was more like a hedgehog.  O’Neill did not take the approach of basing his physical appearance on bestial imagery and played Richard with a slight limp and unexaggerated hump.  His Richard was like a moody youth, who did what he did because he could.  One example of this was bawling at Buckingham (Brian Ferguson) that he was not in the giving ‘ vein’ (4.3.105) and storming off stage in a sulk when Buckingham requests his rewards for his support.  O’Neill’s showman Richard developed through the run, playing with the audience, acknowledging an audience member’s sneeze with a ‘bless you’ and directing ‘was ever woman in this humour won’ (1.2.236) to someone sitting on the front row. This showman element was exemplified in O’Neill’s British Museum’s Staging Shakespeare exhibit where he had a look of Robbie Williams, and there was much of the ‘Let Me Entertain You’ in O’Neill’s performance.  Rylance addressed the groundlings in the pit throughout, but without the confidence that O’Neill had shown over the summer.  It was as if he was unsure of himself, and that the play demanded him to  follow the path that he does and he is carried along with it all.

In both productions, there were some very strong performances in the female roles. The absence of Margaret in the Globe production felt strange. Paola Dionisotti had delivered such a powerful performance in the RSC production that Margaret’s presence had become a beat underneath the action. Dionisotti’s Margaret stamped her foot on the metal stage as she cursed the court, making her prophesies hard to forget as characters moved closer to there deaths.  Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth played the grieving mother with great effect, and Pippa Nixon’s performance as Anne was sharp and nuanced and when she spat in Richard’s face the audience gasped (1.2).  In the Globe production Samuel Barnett’s Elizabeth made a bold move and took control by kissing Richard at the end of 4.4, an approach I’d not seen before.

One of the strengths of the RSC production was in the supporting roles. Alex Waldmann’s Catesby was a particular example of an excellent supporting performance, and he always seemed to be there in the background, and encouraging the citizens to support Richard (4.1). He presented Catesby as a geeky character wearing glasses in the first half, but growing in confidence alongside Richard as Richard moves closer to the throne. There was an incredible performance from Iain Bachelor as Richmond, who felt very much like the nation’s saviour.  His ‘why then ’tis time to arm and give direction’ (5.3) speech not only seemed to motivate the soldiers in his camp, but the audience as well. Joshua Jenkins’ and Neal Barry’s murderers were a very comic double act, and Edmund Kingsley made a walk so effective and moving as Clarence purposely crossed the stage to the bed where he would die.  The bed was placed in the same place as Henry’s coffin had in 1.2, drawing attention to Clarence’s ‘royal’ persona, but also foreshadowing the murder.

In the RSC production, the scenes with the citizens and Lord Mayor were almost slapstick. These showed Richard to be both manipulative, and a comedian at the first time.  As the lights went down on the first half, O’Neill would grin at the audience and sometimes wave. As an audience, we were clearly meant to enjoy this, but we were also complicit with Richard in his machinations.

The sword fight in the RSC production made the most of the small Swan stage and the close proximity of the audience. It was energetic, exciting and unnerving and there were actual sparks generated when the swords clashed.   At the end, the RSC production took a motif from Michael Boyd’s 2011 RSC Macbeth. The ghost of the young Prince ran on stage to distract Richard, and that’s when he is overthrown by Richmond. The Globe went one step further and all the ghosts appeared, but this seemed rather excessive and did not work well.

The lights came up at the end of the RSC production to signal the new regime. The Globe production brought close through the dance. In a play where Richard has two-thirds of the lines, there’s a lot for the actors to work with and O’Neill and Rylance took different perspectives of Richard’s character and presented both villain and comedian in different ways and held the audience’s attention throughout.

Reviews and Previews

Richard III Globe 2012

The Stage / Reviews / Richard III

Mark Rylance in Richard III, Globe Theatre, review – Telegraph

Blog Richard III – Shakespeare’s Globe « Gareth’s Culture and Travel Blog

Blog: There Ought To Be Clowns: Review: Richard III, Shakespeare’s Globe

Richard III, Globe Theatre, London The Doctor’s Dilemma, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – Reviews – Theatre & Dance – The Independent

Richard III, Shakespeare’s Globe, London –

Richard III; The Doctor’s Dilemma; The Fire Garden – reviews | Stage | The Observer

Richard III – review | Stage | The Guardian

Richard III RSC 2012

Richard III, RSC, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, review – Telegraph

Blog: Battle of Richard III’s part 1: RSC’s Jonjo O’Neill (Rev Stan’s theatre blog)

A northern light on Shakespeare’s ‘broken’ mona…

Richard III, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK –

Richard III – review | Stage | The Guardian

The Stage / Reviews / Richard III

Blog: Partially Obstructed View: Theatre review: Richard III (RSC / Swan)

References are to the Macmillan/RSC text