I never thought I'd be grateful for Peter Hall's fixation about "proper" dramatic verse speaking. Few actors have a natural gift for making sense when pausing at the end of every line. With All's Well That Ends Well, however, chopping up some of Shakespeare's most complex verse into ten-syllable chunks is a positive boon; the rhetorical monkey puzzles of this "problem" play grow much less problematic under Hall's treatment.
Textually, clarity is the keynote of the production (transferred from the Swan Theatre at Stratford): Hall gives the most thoroughly comprehensible reading he can. Paradoxically, rather than easing the difficulties of the play as a whole this sharpens them. All's Well is a Gordian knot of discordant themes and registers. Generically a comedy, it is neither funny nor uplifting; its plot has a folkloric simplicity warped by imbuing the characters with credible inner lives. Even the supposedly happy ending mutates the blithe assertion of the title, as the King of France remarks "All yet seems well" (my italics).
Sophie Thompson's Helena has the air of a retiring schoolgirl who summons up undreamt-of reserves of gumption to achieve her goal. Spurned by the snobbish, narcissistic Count Bertram, this physician's daughter first cures the King of a fistula in return for the hand of whomsoever she chooses. When, even under royal compulsion, Bertram runs away to war leaving the marriage unconsummated, Helena follows and contrives the venerable bed-trick whereby he sleeps permissibly with her while believing he is fornicating with someone else. Plenty of sexual enormities, in short, to disquiet a modern audience.
As Bertram, Toby Stephens exhibits the preened, smirking hauteur that makes one wonder what Helena sees in the git, until a resolution at which he appears both sincerely repentant and grimacing in humiliation. His cowardly braggart companion Parolles is marvellously portrayed by Michael Siberry, showing palpable but transparent charm at first, later transformed into a ragged but unashamed misanthrope. Siberry's resonant drawl has waited years for this part.
The upheavals of youth contrast with the reassurance of maturity, solidly personified in Richard Johnson's King, Barbara Jefford's dowager Countess and especially in the courtier Lafew, played as a likeable old goat by Alfred Burke. This, though, is one more unresolved dichotomy to add to the heap. Heaven forbid that we should be told what to think, but Hall's direction is startlingly devoid of any comment. Viewed in conjunction with his current schedule of West End productions, it begins to look as if his restless, questioning impulse is a thing of the past.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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