Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor: Dominic Power
Director: Andrew Hilton
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
All’s Well That Ends Well is the second half of a double-bill at Exeter Northcott by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, following a production of Hamlet that was fairly well-received, if a little predictable for this reviewer. Back for a second round, we find the same concrete-esque grey wallsand the same cast in very different roles, and it is immediately clear that this cast was made for comedy.
The play is an excellent counterpart to Hamlet – female actors with peripheral or problematic roles in Hamlet are now at the heart of the narrative and the theatre buzzes with energy and camaraderie from a cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. The story spills off the stage into the aisles and around the auditorium, creating moments of distance between characters while drawing the audience into the play’s busy Italian streets.
Paul Currier is particularly strong as Parolles, the boastful army captain secretly afraid of war, who struts pompously about the French court asking impertinent questions. Currier has a gift for comic delivery, but also adds a piteous touch to the Falstaffian character when his fortune takes a turn for the worse. Costume Designer Max Johns and his team come into their own with Parolles’ outfit – a startlingly bright red jacket replete with buttons, bandoliers and army pennants that make him resemble a string of bunting.
The play centres on Helena (Eleanor Yates), a young woman in the household of the Countess Rossillion (Julia Hills) who is in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram (played with a confident coolness by Craig Fuller). Though only the daughter of a physician, shrewd Helena wins the favour of the King, who promises her any husband she chooses from among his wards, but when she chooses Bertram he is appalled by her low social status and vows that though he must marry her, he will never love her.
Making the most of a narrative where women call the shots, the relationships between the female characters are the strongest and most memorable of this production. The connection between Helena and the Countess, when love and happiness is at risk for both of them, adds a touching moment to Julia Hills’ excellent comic performance, and Diana’s (Isabella Marshall) pledge to help Helena trick her husband into submission is the strongest vow we see on stage.
Marshall shines as Diana: a clever maiden whose wit leads Bertram – and even the King – a merry dance. Marshall gives Diana a deep sense of justice, tempered with bemusement at her fellow humans’ behaviour, and is a joy to watch.
Less well-known than Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well is sometimes described as a ‘problem play’ for its troubling depictions of love and lust, and for providing a resolution where things may ‘end well,’ but there is no certainty that this will remain a happy ending for Helena and her husband, bound to her in what is effectively an arranged marriage.
Dominic Power’s adaptation of the play heightens this sense of unease: he develops the character of Lavatch (Marc Geoffrey) from the original clown to a young courtier deeply in love with Bertram. In a bittersweet performance from Geoffrey, Lavatch teaches the rest of the cast to dance and deport themselves as befits the nobility, yet remains an outsider that cannot fit within the heterosexual couplings that conclude the play. Geoffrey’s tragicomic role gives this production an extra power, reminding us (particularly poignantly given the events of this week) that while women might be empowered, other groups of people are still pushed aside.
Runs until 18 June 2016 | Image: Marc Douet