All’s Well that Ends Well has been classified as one of Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays’, a comedy that is plagued by a simmering sense of sorrow, some of the characters finding themselves in a situation that poses no easy solution. In a plot that constantly likens war to sexual relationships and in which women determine to take control of their own lives, it’s almost difficult to believe that this was written over 400 hundred years ago. With the Nineteenth Century costumes of this Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production and a script that is easier to follow than any Shakespeare play I have ever seen, could you please forgive me for, at times, doubting that it was written by him at all?
Aided by a Tobacco Factory ‘in the round’, a perfect a use for it as ever witnessed, Andrew Hilton’s direction skips easily across France, back and forth from Roussillon to the Court of Paris, and over the border to an Italy in the midst of war, never losing pace, always leaving us wondering whether Helena will get her man and, indeed, why on earth she should want him in the first place.
The apple of Helena’s eye is Bertram, a snobbish young man lacking in maturity and preferring to flee into the arms of war rather than into those of a besotted woman who, he feels, is way beneath him in title and fortune. If the men can outmanoeuvre their foes militarily, the women can run rings around the men, getting one up on them at every turn, using trickery and deceit to bring their plans to fruition. A shame, then, that Helena’s plan is to firstly marry a man who thinks of her as a sisterly friend he grew up with, wanting no part of any such union, and then to fool him into handing over his ancestral ring and impregnating her with the help of Diana, a comely and winning Isabella Marshall, a more obvious choice for Bertram, that shameless squanderer of virginity.
Eleanor Yates is a self-assured Helena, a strategic thinker who never loses her cool, the sort of woman who’d surely be best employed in the diplomatic corps as she calmly problem solves each step of the way, her means arguably not really worth the end (though it is to her, so who are we to judge?). Her foe/love, Bertram, is played perfectly by Craig Fuller, at times seemingly nonchalant (uncaring?), at others indignant, and then with a desperation that is, dare I say it, bordering on vulnerability. Bertram isn’t a nice chap and Helena would get more out of life if she burned the bright light of her energy elsewhere but, actually, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for a man who’s been self absorbed enough to be so easily tricked.
I am impressed, both in script and in acting, by Bertram’s mother, the Countess, who isn’t happy at her son’s cowardly behaviour, taking the side of Helena, her ward whom she loves as her own daughter. You can rely on Julia Hills for a controlled performance and her Countess is strong. This is, you feel, a woman who would prefer to live out out the remainder of her life without the complication of men, now that her husband is dead. She’s probably more annoyed that her son should be ruining her chance at full peace and you can almost hear her thinking, “For God’s sake, Man, just get on with it and let me be.” In contrast, Lavatch, a clown for Shakespeare and a dance teacher for Hilton, finally breaks down at the madness of it all and Marc Geoffrey is emotion personified – if the Countess is mildly put out by Bertram’s actions, Lavatch is distraught. Where Helena is composed, he loses it. With Lavatch lies the true comedy of the piece, along with the always faultless Paul Currier, who, in this production, plays the cowardly leech, Parolles, a man who has a somewhat female understanding of the world: he gets what’s going on with the women, if not completely, then more than the others. In a cast that in shrouded in an almost gothic darkness, Parolles is clad in the bright red uniform of the Napoleonic era British Military, sticking out like a sore thumbed soldier in the green fields of war, his armour offering no camouflage or protection whatsoever, screaming silently, “Look at me! This is what I am!”
While you’re never going to get the uplifting, modern day scenes of last year’s Romeo and Juliet, this may well be the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production that has you hooked on the story, curious as to the solution to the problem. The cast and creative minds behind All’s Well that Ends Well show us, once again, what it truly means to be a team in the most effortless Shakespeare I’ve ever watched.
All’s Well that Ends Well plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 30th April