All's Well that Ends Well
The Guildford Shakespeare Company, a co-production with the Jermyn Street Theatre, London.
St. Nicolas’ Church, Guildford
This is often regarded as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays and I have to admit that I have a problem with it too. When Helena, orphaned daughter of a doctor, cures the Queen’s ‘incurable’ illness, she asks for Bertram as a husband. He is forced to go through a marriage ceremony but, saying Helena is socially beneath him, he refuses to consummate the marriage unless she can get the ring from his finger and bear his child, both seemingly impossible feats. With those parting words, and refusing to even kiss her, he then leaves for Italy to fight in the Tuscan Wars. Well—would you want to marry him after that? However Helena, seemingly subservient and compliant at that point, is one of Shakespeare’s strong women and has made up her mind that this is the one she wants and is determined to find a way to get him.
We meet Hannah Morrish’s Helena somewhat in ‘slob’ mode, drinking from a bottle, playing records Very Loudly and animatedly discussing virginity with Parolles as she lounges on a bed, so perhaps Bertram has a point, but so far he doesn’t seem to have any redeeming features and is acting like a spoilt child always wanting his own way. Yet somehow, the handsome Gavin Fowler gives him a boyish appeal which makes you think that he’ll probably be all right when he grows up.
The generation gap is very obvious in this play with the older characters being sympathetic and sensible while the younger ones are headstrong, petulant or, in the case of Bertram’s friend Parolles, boastful and cowardly, character traits which lead to his downfall.
All performances are exceptional with Miranda Foster being top of my list for expertise and versatility. She is compassionate and understanding as Bertram’s mother the Countess, taking Helena under her wing and giving her advice. She is weak and ailing as the ‘dying’ Queen, giving her speeches from what looks like a very uncomfortable bed. On recovery, she is dynamic and forceful as, dressed to kill, she takes to the podium delivering a well-rehearsed and positive speech to the crowd. She also gets a lot of quietly understated humour into her lines as the Widow, Diana’s mother.
Diana, whom Bertram is attempting to seduce, is played with poise and quiet authority by Ceri-Lyn Cissone, who switches to gloriously hilarious comedy when as Domaine her / his aggressive questioning of a blindfolded Parolles leads him to believe he is being interrogated by a host of army officers. Sheer genius!
As for Parolles, well Robert Mountford plays him larger than life and for all-out comedy, so much so that the woman next to me couldn’t contain her laughter when he so much as stepped onto the stage. His true colours are finally revealed, but I don’t think anything would stop him for long.
Stefan Bednarczyk’s musical arrangements frequently underscore the action with Ceri-Lyn Cissone being one of the pianists. Stefan is the other, and he is also the kindly, avuncular Lafew, reasonable and sensible giving advice but finally exasperated and disgusted by Bertram “I will buy me a son-in-law in a fair… I’ll none of him”.
Under Tom Littler’s expert direction, the production flows smoothly and seamlessly to its essential ‘happy ending’. An adult fairy tale with its darker and somewhat immoral side now forgotten.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor