You know you are in Stratford when the curry house is called Thespian’s (sic) and boasts a bust of Shakespeare in an alcove. At our hotel, the theming was relentless, with even the door hangers bearing quotations, ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ indicating that the room was unavailable for cleaning – which is rather disconcerting when you consider that Hamlet’s ‘sleep’ was, in fact, death. The reverse – ‘Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!’ – was altogether more apt.
'All's Well That Ends Well' is regarded as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays. Its main theme can be summarised as 'how to be a man' and concerns Bertram's rite of passage from arrogant ward of the King of France to returning war hero and belatedly loving husand of fellow-ward, Helena, their arranged marriage having been the spur for his departure for war in Italy without consummating it.
That Bertram resents having to marry Helena even though she is beautiful and otherwise universally admired can be explained by the fact that he is still young and immature, and she is of lowlier birth. What is more difficult to understand is why she so ardently loves a man who not only despises her, but has few redeeming characteristics. The ultimate success of the play hinges upon the actress in the role being able to make you believe in her passion, and unfortunately Joanna Horton’s portrayal falls somewhat short. Her Helena lacks that witchy spark that is evident when she cures the King of France of his apparently fatal illness, and the fact that she tends to recite her lines rather than say them doesn’t help.
More pleasing is Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of the odious and cowardly Parolles, an inveterate liar who is quite prepared to betray his fellow soldiers to save his own neck. Using the typewriter upon which his defamatory statements were recorded as a block for his mock beheading is inspired, given that his name translates as ‘Words’. Less well conceived is the periodic, over-energetic dancing to loud music to signal to the audience that young soldiers work hard and play hard. It reminded me of the Young Generation on the Rolf Harris Show in the late 60s and early 70s, and felt almost comically out of date.
Quibbles aside, it was a delight to catch this rarely performed play and I would recommend a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see it.
The RSC’s production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 26th September.
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