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Print Version
Photo by David Lawrence
Photo by David Lawrence
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Lawrence
Presented by The Bacchanals

at The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington
From 23 Jan 2014 to 1 Feb 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 24 Jan 2014

All's Well that Ends Well* is regarded as one of Shakespeare's ‘Problem Plays'** – a designation that has at three meanings: they cannot easily be categorised as Comedy, Tragedy or History plays; they tend to be about what could be called ‘social problems'; directors tend to find them problematical when it comes to settling on a performance style.

As a tale from Boccaccio's Decameron (see below*) redeployed to an arguably more serious purpose, some of the plot devices can stretch credulity, not least the one where a man is tricked into sleeping with a woman thinking she is someone else.

The Bacchanals' ‘anything goes' presentation – most obvious in the all-over-the-place and often strange costume choices – is their solution to the style problem. While their trademark ‘Poor Theatre' conventions and charming affability remain, they present All's Well as a rough-hewn Comedy, and ‘once over lightly' at that in key areas, which would short-change any of Shakespeare's Comedies let alone a Problem Play that is striving for something more gutsy. 

While the Emo eye makeup in the publicity shots may signal something of a piss-take, they don't use it in the show. Thankfully Hilary Penwarden plays the central role of Helena – the orphaned daughter of a respected doctor and hopelessly in love with Bertram, the son of her guardian – with great sincerity.

The main social problem the play confronts is class: Bertram is the Count of Rossillion and he automatically dismisses the commoner Helena as “base”. There is also a lot of robust commentary and comedy around sexual politics, most notably pointing up the right of young men to screw around while young women must remain virginal until they are married.  

Joe Dekkers-Reihana brings strong credibility to the fallible Bertram, delineating his journey to emotional maturity with entertaining clarity.

As Bertram's friend Parolles – who, as the ‘evil genius', is seen by some as a prototype Iago (although his come-uppance has more in common with Malvolio) – Salesi Le'ota gives a winning performance that challenges us to accept his casual flair as a ‘good mate' before the ‘gulling' scene reveals his true nature. (He doesn't get Iago-like soliloquies to expose his deviousness more readily.)

The Countess of Rossillion is usually confined to being the honourable matron of the play when the clown character – Lavatch, a left-over favourite of her late husband – is dropped. But here he's included in a splendid rendering by Michael Ness, so Jean Sergeant is able to counterpoint the strong integrity of the Countess with a more jocular dimension when coping, for example, with Lavatch's unrequited urge to procreate and his compulsive allusions to sexual body parts.  

Also strong are director David Lawrence (a.k.a. Walter J Plinge) playing the fistula-plagued King of France – who is given a new lease of life through Helena's inherited skills as a doctor – Brianne Kerr as the Florentine Widow Capilet and Charlotte Pleasants as her daughter Diana. Notwithstanding the King's assumed right to threaten execution on anyone who doesn't obey him and dictate who shall marry whom – or rather who may chose whom and who must obey – the exposure of Bertram's self-serving and dishonourable actions packs a good wollop in their hands.

All this should add up to a great production all round but there are other choices that subvert it. Because Aidan Weeks – lower half in doublet and hose; upper half like Frank from Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em – brings his characteristic verbal stumbling and fumbling to Lord Lafew, the Countessess's old retainer has no impact in picking Paroles early on for the fake he turns out to be. He does however, on opening night, get a good laugh on his “onion” line at the end.  

For some unaccountable reason the brothers Dumaine (Michael Ness and Alice May Connolly), French Lords who are Captains in the army, are got up to look like Dupond et Dupont (or Thomson and Thompson) from Tintin. As a visual gag is raises a smile to begin with then they are stuck with it; the actors trying to impose comic characteristics where they don't belong. Likewise playing the soldiers as buffoons in Ancient Chinese Army headgear conspires to radically dilute the jeopardy the gulling scene should put Paroles in.  

This is not to say all the costume choices are questionable. The Musketeer-style feathered hats for Bertram and Parolles and the rest of their costumes serve them well. Be they ‘modern dress', older gear of combinations of both, the costume choices are often most fitting.

Playing it out in a shallow thrust space causes sightline problems from the side (where I was) when straight lines are employed rather than diagonals and playing back into the space. And too often asides are played quietly to the closest audience members where throwing it back to someone across the space would allow everyone to get it.

While I have no problem with The Bacchanals' casual approach – in fact I love it – it has, in the past, been counterpointed with a strong focus on the play's essential purpose. That is what's lacking here, despite their having gone to the trouble of signalling the core conflict by flanking their usual red Bacchanals ‘arras' with hangings depicting Mars and Fortuna.

The knowingly over-the-top, in-jokey ‘guest appearance' by Alex Greig in the functional role of A Gentleman is another example of an odd choice that subverts the play's dramatic purpose and the value of the strong performances mentioned above.

In his programme note, David Lawrence – who has recently returned from a stint at Shakespeare's Globe in London – writes about “overhauling the way we do Shakespeare” and adds “the changes will seem subtle at first, but they'll eventually be anything but”. Well there's not much subtle in this production.  

For once – and I trust it is an aberration – the whole amounts to less than the sum of the parts.  

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* Shakespeare based the central plotline of All's Well that Ends Well on a story about Giletta of Narbonne from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, translated into English a couple of centuries later by William Painter and included in his Palace of Pleasures. Although David Lawrence discounts it, I see merit in the theory that Shakespeare first worked it up as Love's Labours Won then put it aside until early in the 17th century when he developed it further – adding the Parolles-led subplot and renaming it All's Well that Ends Well – to keep his public at the Globe on Bankside happy while working on the likes of Othello and King Lear for the wealthier merchant class at Blackfriars.

** Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida are commonly cited as ‘Problem Plays' too and some scholars add The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens and The Winter's Tale to the list. 
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);