18 May 2009

All's Well That Ends Well - National Theatre

The play begins with Bertram assuming the title of Count of Rossillion upon the death of his father. Helena is the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, and for years has lived in the Rossillion household under the care of Bertram's mother, the Countess. Over the years, Helena has developed a secret love for Bertram. The Countess, however, is well aware of Helena's feelings (and indeed approves of them).

Against this backdrop, the King of France has been taken deathly ill. Bertram leaves to attend the King's court. Helena soon follows him to Paris, and cures the King with the medicinal knowledge she learned from her father. The cure earns her the gratitude of the King, who gives her a costly ring in gratitude and also offers her the pick of the bachelors at his court. Helena, of course, picks Bertram, who is quite put off by the prospect. To Bertram, Helena is beneath him and unworthy of his notice. Nevertheless, Bertram is ordered to marry her. He assents to the marriage under protest, then slips off to a war in Tuscany with his cowardly companion, Parolles.

Helena returns to Rossillion and the Countess. Bertram sends word that she may not call him husband until she gets from him a ring (which he always wears) and can bear him a child—not a simple task, especially given that Bertram is in Italy with no intention of ever consummating their marriage. Helena once again takes matters into her own hands and sets out to follow him. She arrives in Florence in the guise of a pilgrim and lodges with a widow whose daughter, Diana, is the newest object of Bertram's affections. With Diana's help, Helena aims to trap Bertram into marriage.

She gets Diana to accept Bertram's advances. Bertram, however, must agree to give Diana his ring before they share a bed. At the crucial moment, Helena takes Diana's place in the dark. She also exchanges the ring given to her by the King for Bertram's, accomplishing both terms of Bertram's challenge. When a rumour is spread of Helena's death, Bertram assumes that he is clear of any responsibility for the wife he never wanted, and returns to France. However, the King easily recognizes the ring he bears as the one he had given to Helena; when Bertram is caught in a series of lies, the King has him arrested on suspicion of having murdered her. Adding to Bertram's misery, Diana and her mother arrive demanding justice, which exposes even more lies. Helena finally appears— wearing Bertram's ring and carrying his child— leaving him no option but to marry her, to his mother's delight.

Helena : Michelle Terry
Bertram : George Rainsford
The Countess of Rossillion : Clare Higgins
King of France : Oliver Ford Davies
Diana : Hasina Haque
The Widow : Janet Henfrey
Parolles : Conleth Hill
Violenta : Cassie Atkinson
Gentleman Astringer : Jolyon Coy
Interpreter : Robert Hastie
Lavatch : Brendan O'Hea
Mariana : Sioned Jones
1st Lord Dumaine : Elliot Levey
2nd Lord Dumaine : Tony Jayawardena
Rynaldo : Michael Mears
Lafew : Michael Thomas
Ensemble : Oliver Wilson, Ben Allen, Tom Padley, Rob Delaney, Alex Felton

Production credits:
Director: Marianne Elliott
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Music: Adam Cork
Movement Director: Laila Diallo
Projection Designers: Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson

Believe me, there’s nothing so bad as Bad Shakespeare. And gadzooks, is this Bad Shakespeare. Officially it’s one of his “Problem Plays” – because they don’t fit into any of the established categories, because they are ambivalent in material, tone and/or treatment, written when he was feeling old and crotchety, or because he was running out of ideas to steal from other sources. Or all of the above. In layman’s terms, piss poor plays.

All’s Well That Ends Well is, quite simply, a piss poor play. It takes a great production to transcend the material. It needs actors at the height of their game. It needs a “concept” – something to pin onto the play to make it come alive in the minds of the audience and make it work. It needs that indefinable spark. And this production hasn’t got any of them. It’s not only Bad Shakespeare – its Bad Bad Shakespeare.

It took me a while to work out what the “concept” was for this production. Initially I thought it was Gormenghast, but it turned out that its Gormenghast, designed by Arthur Rackham, as retold by The Brothers Grimm, with lighting by The Badly Lit Stage Company and stage effects by Lots Of Dry Ice, Inc. At least in the first half. The Countess of Rousillion presides over an eerie, snowbound realm, huddling under scudding clouds and skies full of ravens. There are servants in knee breeches and powdered wigs, there are blood-red velvet cloaks and sparkling, glassy footwear. Irascible kings with crooked sceptres wear floor length robes and high pointy crowns. There are quests to undertake with rings in reward for potions delivered. There are silhouettes and shadow-plays. Mirrored doors covered with bronze flowers open and flunkys unroll red carpets using brooms. It all looks very, very pretty – at least, what you can see of it through the gloom and the dry ice. But it’s all a coathanger for a very thin garment.

After the interval, the “The Concept” seems to have been completely abandoned and the whole thing becomes Rydell High School 1954. There are strings of fairy lights, leather jackets and frogged uniforms open to the waist, and women in 50’s frocks and “sexy vixen” costumes from Ann Summers. Frankly, its all a bit of a mess. There are back projections of creepy woods – at one point an owl lands in a tree and gets a bigger laugh than the “comedy” going on in front of it. Which is a Bad Sign.

The play isn’t helped by the fact that the early scenes contain an enormous amount of speechifying – earnest, declamatory speeches that go on and on, delivered from someone standing in the centre of the stage and which don’t really add anything to the plot. The kind of speech that Victoria Wood always hoped would be interrupted by the sound of trumpets and the entrance of a messenger: “My Lord, the sofa has arrived!” Quite a lot of the early speechifying is inaudible – either because of bad diction or lack of projection - and some of it is SO AUDIBLE AT THE BACK OF THE CIRCLE that it makes your ears bleed. Some of the speechifying is delivered by a character so unsympathetic that its amazing he isn’t booed on a nightly basis. And then there’s the character that always fills me with dread: The Shakespeare Clown. It can be a horrendous job playing a Shakespeare Clown – busting your gut trying to get a laugh out of “jokes” that weren’t funny in 1604 while biffing people over the head with a pig’s bladder. But oh my days, (and leaving aside the individual performance, which is frankly as piss poor as the play itself) this particular Clown is a rotten example of the species.

Clare Higgins fails to impress as the Countess, mainly because a lot of her dialogue is poorly delivered, rendering her all but inaudible (and thus incomprehensible). As much of her early speechifying sets up the plot for the audience, this is unforgivable. Brendan O’Hea is so dreadful as Lavatch (the “clown” role) it simply beggars belief that such shoddy acting can be countenanced by the National Theatre. I’ve seen better acting by MPs trying desperately to explain their expenses claims. Conleth Hill is wildly miscast as Parolles, seems incapable of extracting any meaningful characterisation from the role and becomes increasingly desperate for laughs, which the audience don’t provide him with. George Rainsford takes on the (admittedly unsympathetic) role of Bertram with no previous Shakespearian acting experience. He sets himself low standards and its obvious by the end of Scene One that he’s not going to reach even them. In fact, he’s so forgettable that his biog has been missed out of the programme and appears on a paper erratum slip tucked into the front. Michelle Terry tries her hardest to inject life into the role of Helena, but its only Michael Thomas and Oliver Ford Davies (Lafew and the King of France respectively) who succeed in bringing their characters fully to life.

Everybody tries hard to overcome the many shortcoming of the play. But its an unenviable task. I’ve had haemorrhoid surgery that I enjoyed more than this production (given that, in the play, the King of France is suffering from a fistula, this is not a gratuitous comparison). The “comedy” scenes are greeted with a stony silence, the dramatic scenes with apathy and the whole evening falls dead in the water. Quite simply, the best epithet for the entire production (described by the NT as “full of fairytale logic”) is “Grimm”.

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