Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Paul Burbridge
Designers: Sean Cavanagh, Anna Gooch
Music/Sound: Patrick Burbridge
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
York certainly does Shakespeare proud, with the return of the Shakespeare’s Rose season at the end of June preceded by the York International Shakespeare Festival from May 9 to 19. There are a whole series of short-run productions/performances at the new pop-up space, the Dogrose, and other venues, and two more substantial runs: Northern Broadsides’ Much Ado About Nothing (already reviewed on this website) at the Theatre Royal for five nights and All’s Well that Ends Well in Riding Lights’ Friargate Theatre for the duration of the festival.
All’s Well that Ends Well is regarded as a problem play, both because it asks the audience to think about moral problems and because the play itself is a problem. It has the structure of a farce – the denouement depending on the infamous Bed Trick – and some genuinely farcical scenes, but it seems to take such a sour view of Mankind (especially the male half of it) that the obligatory final rejoicing rings more than hollow.
So it’s a brave choice by Riding Lights, justified in the main, though All’s Well is no less a problem after this intelligent, funny, if never really joyous, evening. All’s Well has a complicated plot which Riding Lights reduce to five actors and an hour and 45 minutes stage time while keeping the essence of the narrative.
Helena, daughter of an eminent doctor, now dead, loves Bertram, Count of Rousillon after the death of his father. He won’t look at anyone so lowborn, but after she has cured the King of France of a wasting disease the King allows her to choose any husband from his courtiers. She chooses Bertram – then it gets nasty. He flees, with his degenerate friend Parolles, to fight the war in Italy, having officially married Helena, but swearing she will not be his true wife or share his bed until she bears his child – difficult! She follows him and, unknown to him, substitutes for the Italian woman he is trying to bed. Of course it all ends happily, if you can call it happy. At the end the questions remain: how could Helena imagine life with such a self-regarding snob and how could Bertram trust the woman who played such a trick on him?
The style of the production sets up an expectation of jollity that the Shakespearean text only partly fulfils. Many of the laughs of an entertaining evening come from the interaction of actors with audience as events play out on a strip with audience on two sides. This is Le Café Francais where music plays (often in the style of Django Reinhardt), the staff are surprisingly accomplished singers and musicians and the story takes off in a swirl of checked table-cloths.
Despite the major cuts, the story holds up: sometimes it’s difficult to work out who the character is, but his/her role in the story of Bertram, Helena, the Countess and the King is always clear. The level of caricature is an occasional problem. Hannah Parker, for instance, impresses as an unusually feisty Countess of Rousillon – imperious, aristocratic, not without mischief – and a wickedly amusing Diana, Bertram’s Italian inamorata, but she also plays an amalgam of lords around the King as a perpetually grumpy Scots woman with an impenetrable accent. For John Holden-White the problem is a bit different. As the King he is excellent, convincing both as valetudinarian and authority figure, he fills several small parts capably, but he is up against the task of playing one of Shakespeare’s least funny clowns.
Nell Baker’s Helena is nicely judged. Like Daniel Woolley’s Bertram, she seems a rather pale character at first, but she develops a convincing line in modest authority. As for Woolley, the fact that he does not develop – until the final, scarcely credible expression of his love for Helena – is key to the performance. He looks and sounds nice enough, but his callow selfishness makes him scarcely more admirable than Parolles, played by Matthew Rutherford, with camp braggadocio that amuses.
Paul Burbridge’s production, under ever-changing twinkling lights, also twinkles whenever it has a chance and sets a brisk pace without being quite as breathless as the publicity promises.
Runs until May 19, 2019 | Image: Contributed