All’s Well That Ends Well
Jermyn Street Theatre, 6th November 2019
Hard to credit but the Tourist had never seen a production of AWTEW until now. Which made the pleasure in seeing Tom Littler’s pint sized production, in tandem with the Guildford Shakespeare Company, even sweeter. Wiki tells me that AWTEW is, by Will’s standards, a compact play with 13 named characters as well as the usual stand-in “Soldiers, Servants, Gentlemen, and Courtiers”. Mr Littler has whittled it down to a cast of 6 with some clever excisions, revisions, re-inventions, gender changes, doubling and tripling. And some precise choreography, thanks to Cydney Uffindel-Phillips, to make it all fit the tiny JST stage.
Now as far as I can see all the elements of the plot, pinched from The Decameron, are present and correct though I can’t be sure about the detail of the text. Doctor’s daughter Helena, the graceful Hannah Morrish who has already impressed in the RSC’s 2017 series, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and especially Coriolanus, as well as Simon Godwin’s Tony and Cleo at the NT, is in love with the up himself Bertram, a well judged performance from Gavin Fowler. His Mum the Countess (Miranda Foster take 1) is on board but Helena heads off to Paris to cure the sickly Queen (not King) of France (Miranda Foster take 2) who commands Bertram to marry her as the payment for her healing hands. The cad scoots off to war, with his chum, prize arse Parolles, Robert Mountford having about as much fun as it is possible to have on stage whilst still nominally acting, telling Helena he will truly be hers if she bears his child and wears the family ring. The Countess disowns him, Bertram turns his charm on one Diana (Ceri-Lyn Cissone take 1), she and Helena hatch classic bed swap routine. Ring secured, sexy time wrapped up. Helena fakes death, naturally, Bertram returns home to marry aristo but Helena interrupts. Bertram bowled over. AWTEW.
Overseeing the capers is one Lord Lafew (Stefan Bednarczyk) and Miranda Foster’s final incarnation as a Florentine widow and Mum of Diana. Oh, and of course, there is a whole comic routine mocking the bravery of wind-bag Parolles, facilitated by a handy, invented, soldier Dumaine, also Ceri-Lyn Cissone.
Mr Bednarczyk and Ms Cissone are not on stage just for their, fine, acting skills though but also for their facility on a piano. For, if music be the food of love …. I know wrong play but music is central to this production, though not maybe always quite the tunes you might expect. Helena loves her vinyl collection with Rumours, Horses and Blue, (look ’em up Gen Z), forming the soundtrack which are expanded and extended in some nifty arrangements courtesy of Stefan B himself. I can see why the one-size fits all lyrics of The Chain might fit the AWTEW bill though I was a little less sure elsewhere. But the music acts as a very pleasing counterpoint to the text and creates continuity in the shifts between the scenes.
As I say this is a logistical triumph with lighting (Mark Dymock) and sound (Matt Eaton) tailored to fit Neil Irish and Annett Black’s glam, cardboard box set, which like the play itself, works way better on stage than on page. But that was just the admirable starting point in Tom Littler’s direction. How to make the audience believe that the lovely, perfect in every way, Helena would fall for the shallow, man-chump Bertram? And especially believe his turn on a sixpence, she’s the girl for me, at the end. Is it because he was always secretly in love with her, just paralysed by the class divide? Or is it because he cannot, or will not, lose face at the end?
Not in this reading I think it is because we, like her, believe he can get better and that his initial dismissal is in part youthful inexperience. And she is the maturer, having had to grow up fast after the loss of her parents, (she regularly caresses her keepsake box), and not driven by money or status. Which is what makes it a thoroughly modern rom-com, for both good, it is hard not to like the set up, journey and the happy ending, and bad, it really is still the most sexist tripe when you think about it. But because both hero and heroine learn something about themselves along the way, once again the Bard, gets away with it, in our age as well as his. Of course there is clowning and plotting which are knowing in their familiarity, and, in Parolles, we have one of WS’s finer comic creations, whose comeuppance, as he rats on Bertram, is salutary.
This then is a dreamy, charming productions which has charmers at its heart, including, Queen, Countess and, in her way, Widow, and uses Helena’s unspoken memories as a way to solve some of the “problems” that this lesser-performed play presents. The intimacy of the staging, every single expression is conveyed to very single audience member, and the strength of the performances, also helps to frame and unify the production which just about magics away the abrupt shifts in tone.
And anyway, let’s face it, all this guff about Shakespeare’s problem plays is exactly that. They all contain “problems”. Life is full of problems. Veering from comedy to tragedy, with dead ends, changes of heart and head, and never really making any sense. Will knows that, and knows that we know that. Marriage may have been couched in rather ore prosaic terms in Elizabethan England but Tom Littler has, by rolling with Shakespeare’s invention, found a way to create a minor key classic.