Our reviewer Meghan Phillips is equally enchanted by the candlelit venue and Caroline Byrne’s droll production of All’s Well that Ends Well.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse alone is worthy of a visit. Although the ceiling is painted to look like the heavens, it’s an intimate venue, measuring only forty by fifty-five feet, with the audience seated on three sides of the stage. During the performance, one could easily reach out and touch the actors; and they, in turn, frequently brush past spectators, creeping into the seating area, extending their limited space. What’s even more impressive about the venue is the lighting: lit just by candles, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse becomes a magical, liminal space and leaves the viewer enchanted. This, and two additional reasons makes the playhouse an ideal venue for All’s Well that Ends Well.
Firstly, the play’s portrayal of women makes it fall betwixt and between eras and genres. The play has been deemed one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because, while it ends with marriage (the traditional structural ending for comedy), the play is full of emotions that could push it into tragedy. Critics have also found the play problematic because the protagonist Helena (played by Elloria Torchia) is a young woman ahead of her time. The fact the play’s protagonist is female itself is remarkable, but it is even more so because Helena is not the usual passive female character that events befall. At the start of the play, she is desperately in love with the boy next door, Bertram (played by William Merrick). Unfortunately for Helena, Bertram is the son of a count, while her father, though a skilled doctor, was the count’s vassal and inferior. Helena laments the fact she is so below Bertram in status, but instead of accepting her station the rest of the play follows her quest to win him as a husband.
Then again, she is a damsel and is often in distress as is particularly shown well by Torchia, who had an amazing ability to ugly cry on cue. One could even spy some snot reflected in the candlelight. However, Helena rescues herself by improving her station and winning Bertram by using her cleverness, virtue, and determination. Historically, critics did not appreciate a woman pursuing a man, nor the explicit dialogue between Helena and Parolles (played by Imogen Doel), where the latter encourages her to lose her virginity pronto and find herself a good husband to “use”. Through her gestures and expressions, Doel particularly underlines the lewdness of this exchange. But most of all, critics probably disliked that Helena wins over Bertram through a “bed trick,” here performed onstage, so that she becomes pregnant with his child. Helena’s cunning was emphasized through the staging of the ‘trick’: the audience sees a hole in a black curtain through which Diana and Helena switch places, the coupling takes place, and Helena and Bertram’s limbs poke artistically through like a child being born and emerging from a womb.
While progressive for the time, Helena is not an independent woman of the modern era. As mentioned, Torchia’s Helena is often weepy and her main motivation is that she is desperately seeking to be married. One could almost overlook this in a “modern” woman, except one wonders what positive qualities she sees in Bertram. Will Merrick, the actor playing Bertram, is not classically handsome and portrays him as immature, selfish, misogynistic, and even callous towards Helena and his mother. In one scene, he is like a school boy sniggering in the corner at jokes made by the class clown, Parolles (Doel’s jester-like makeup and ridiculous, feathered hat reinforces this image). Bertram seems entirely unappealing, until at the end when Helena reveals the birth of their child and he vows to finally treat her as his wife. Only then, when he is cradling the child, does he show any feeling or tenderness. Although this was likely intended to redeem Bertram (holding his child was a choice made by this production: the play does not provide this as a stage direction), it’s not enough time for the audience to get on board with the relationship as it is the final scene.
Despite this, All’s Well is a play full of substantial female characters. In addition to Helena, Bertram’s mother, the Countess, is an important and virtuous character. Through her cleverness, the countess is able to make Helena admit to her that she loves Bertram. Originally, Martha Laird was to play this meaty role, but due to illness she was replaced by Louis Mai Newberry, who ably conveyed the role’s wise and noble aspects through her candlelit expressions and skillful handling of quick-paced dialogue. There is also Diana, well-played by Paige Carter, who is able to convey her charming youth and femininity. Watching Carter in the role, one easily understands why Bertram is attracted to her and how she is able to help Helena so ably pull off the bed trick. Diana’s mother and the woman at the inn are played by Newberry and Hannah Ringham respectively (who are both doing double duty as their second characters). Additionally, this production further celebrates women in its choice to have Parolles and the Clown played by the comedically-talented actresses Imogen Doel and Hannah Ringham. Doel’s portrayal of Parolles especially makes the play fit for the modern audience; she adlibs “Ooo burn” in response to an insult that might have made less sense to a modern audience, and her well-timed gestures, delivery, feathered costuming and dramatic makeup all help further translate her character’s flamboyance and droll lines. Ringham does a good job of underlining the Clown’s funny eccentricity, although her performance was less laugh-out loud funny than Doel’s Parolles.
A second reason the candlelit playhouse is the perfect venue is that the supernatural, one of All’s Well’s themes, is particularly emphasized through the Wanamaker’s natural stage design. The music – played by musicians hidden behind and above the stage – gives this production a mysterious and dramatic flair. This was complimented by the lack of chandelier movement: instead actors often held candles near their faces, reminiscent of how children hold flashlights to their faces when telling ghost stories. When Nigel Cooke’s King is ill, he wears rag-like clothing and nearly knocks over a candelabra in his weakness, until Helena bathes him onstage in actual water. Then, having exited nude, he returns fully healed, marching in with a straight back, resplendent in royal black and gold garments. Another magical choice was to have Bertram and Helena share the stage although their characters were miles apart as if in split-screen: Helena laments his flight to the battlefield and Bertram is steeling himself to enter battle. The scene ends with Helena being raised to the ceiling as she declares she will go on pilgrimage to pray for Bertram’s survival during the war, which gives her an almost witch or fairy like feel. When the play resumes after the interval, Helena is lowered from the ceiling in a long dress that reaches to the floor and her hair, which was once bound up like a child’s, now long and loose. She looks like a goddess from a painting, and appears to hover over the battlefield where Bertram and the French soldiers are fighting like a guardian angel. Equally, a paucity of prop usage and set pieces allowed the audience to use its imagination more fully in contrast to the highly visual costumes. All this quietly affirms dramaturg Annie Siddons’s desire to allow All’s Well to feel more like a cousin to the magical plays of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale “than the rational plays that it’s habitually compared to.”
In sum, this production and cast of All’s Well gives the viewer a magical, diverting, experience filled with mixed emotions. Only two complaints, besides Bertram’s unappealing nature (something a production could not fix) must be noted. First, perhaps too much is done on stage; watching the actors re-arrange the flooring and stacking tiles into piles ruins a little of the magic. Second, the choice to end on a somewhat somber, emotional note, without the King’s final monologue and parting words of “All’s well that ends well,” seemed to undercut the intent of the play to end as a comedy. However, this was somewhat remedied through Helena’s inability to blow out her candle at the end. It took several attempts, and eventually Bertram’s assistance to accomplish, giving both actors and the audience a laugh. So the play might still be problematic, but it proves, though unintentionally, all did turn out well in the end that night.
All’s Well that Ends Well was performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 11th January to 3rd March.