A review by Thomas Tyrrell (Cardiff University)
During a lecture on the medieval sources of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, Professor Elizabeth Archibald digressed so far as to recommend the current production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol. I was suddenly reminded that it was eight years since I saw my first ever Hamlet there; seven since I last went, to watch Anthony and Cleopatra. High time I went again.
The clue’s in the name – the Tobacco Factory is not a purpose built theatre. Forget the stalls and the boxes, the Gods and the proscenium arch. Everything here is staged in the round, with a few bare props, no scenery – and no, the cast will not be familiar to you from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. It’s an intimate space, where every seat gives you a chance to appreciate the play from a literally unique angle.
At the interval I cast an eye over the audience survey. The three key points the theatre was interested in were, in order:
- Did you understand the plot?
- Did you understand the language?
- Did you think the play was well-performed?
I was concerned that the quality of the acting came so far down the list, especially while talking to the woman on the neighbouring seat as we waited for the lights to dim. She was not a Shakespeare loyalist, though she’d come with a woman who was, and she was finding the play a struggle. For her, so much of the drama of the play was lost in the language – beautiful poetic language, she was willing to admit – but which through its very invention and complexity obscured the character’s emotions and motivations. It wasn’t relatable for her.
I had some sympathy. The theatre was obviously concerned that the plot and dialogue of the play, one of Shakespeare’s least known, should be clear and understandable, but in the process I thought they’d sacrificed some of the drama. Helena, heroine of this play, is one of Shakespeare’s most resourceful, witty and determined female characters. Like Rosalind in As You Like It, you should fall in love with her at once. Eleanor Yates as Helena tends to put the language before the emotion, though, and declaims rather than declares her love for Bertram, Count of Rossillion (Craig Fuller). You don’t feel the ache, the yearning, the uncertainty of the infatuation of the physician’s daughter with the man from the higher social sphere. You don’t feel Helena’s nervousness as the wily but well-meaning Countess of Rossillion teases her secret out of her. It’s a superb performance by Julia Hills in a wonderful choreographed scene where two women in full Victorian mourning dress circle one another like dreadnoughts at sea, but still – you just don’t feel it on Helena’s part. You don’t sense her triumph as she heals the King of France of his troublesome fistula, and (in a witty reversal of the usual fairytale) demands Bertram’s hand as her reward, nor her growing anxiety as it emerges that something is seriously awry in their marriage. Only when she finds by Bertram’s cruel letter that he refuses to consummate the marriage and would rather spend the rest of his life waging wars in Italy than share her bed do we see her composure break and her tears pour out.
One the other hand, this emotional void gives unusual room for the other parts in the play to shine. Paul Currier’s Parolles entered with the casual drawl, false swagger and waxed moustachios of George MacDonald Frazer’s Flashman, wearing an unbelievable jacket apparently stolen from a playing card, and amused throughout. The charm and common sense of Diana (Isabella Marshall) as she fooled Bertram into a reconciliation with his wife in part made up for the lack of affect in Helena’s performance. Craig Fuller put great effort into the thankless, sulky and brooding role of Bertram and succeeded in giving me a sense of how nightmarish the play’s final scene is for his character, when all his hypocrisy, deceit and selfishness is dredged up in full view of his mother, his King and his prospective father-in-law.
Helena enters to save him, revealing the bed trick that has been played upon him – instead of villainously seducing the innocent Diana, he has lawfully consummated his marriage with her and fathered a child. The couple reunite, but the play as Shakespeare wrote it leaves us with the nagging feeling that Bertram hardly deserves this mercy. The great emotional moment (‘my eyes smell onions,’ sniffles a courtier) is the reunion of Helena and the Countess, and this seems appropriate for the conclusion of a play in which the women characters are unusually numerous and active in guiding their foolish menfolk in the direction of a happy ending.
This performance has a surprise hero however, for the Countess’s clown Lavatch, vessel of much crude humour, has been reinvented as a prissy dancing master. Marc Geoffrey plays him as a cross between C-3PO and Ophelia and it’s either a tribute to the smoothness with which the new material has been grafted into the play or my dodgy memory of the text as a whole that I could hardly spot the joins. When he recovers from the madness that dogs him in the second half to lead the characters in a closing dance (a Renaissance tradition revived at Shakespeare’s Globe and now, it is heartening to see, spreading to other performances), I found myself deeply and unexpectedly moved. After seeing a fractious character like Bertram slighting his partner and trampling on everyone’s good nature, it added a new conviction to Bertram and Helena’s reunion to see them move, for once, in time and measure: and I was reminded, in the word’s of Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Davies, that ‘Dauncing is love’s proper exercise.’ In the hurry for the exit, I missed the chance to find out how my neighbour enjoyed the second half, but I hope she too found something moving in it.