THE second play in the 2016 Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory season, at the Bedminster headquarters until 30th April and then touring, is the difficult “comedy” All’s Well that Ends Well.
The beautiful, kind and intelligent Helena, foster daughter to the Countess of Rossillion, is in love with her foster brother Bertram, one of the most unremittingly unpleasant characters in the whole of the Bardic canon.
Helena’s late father, a famous physician, left his daughter notes of his cures, and one of these she successfully prescribes to the dying king of France, saving his life. In exchange, he allows her to select the man of her choice to marry, and of course it’s Bertram, who carries out the king’s orders but immediately rejects her and heads off to war. After the interchange of rings, the arrogant and cruel young nobleman leaves his wife with a letter saying that unless she can get the ring back in bed where she has become pregnant by him, there is no marriage.
Our Helena is determined and clever, and the “ending well” is Bertram’s change of character. The anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is as good a time as any to underline his extraordinary insights into human nature … I can see nothing but a sad ending after the curtain goes down.
Andrew Hilton once again gives a crystal clear reading of this text, making sense of the transformation of the coward and braggart Parolles (the hilarious Paul Currier) mirrored against that of the devotedly camp dancing master Lavatch (Marc Geoffrey). Even the final dance fits poignantly in the context.
Ranged about by the handsome young men of the court, Craig Fuller is properly petulant and unpleasant as the anti hero, with Eleanor Yates luminously good as the determined Eleanor.
Julia Hills, a SatTF favourite, has never been better than as the appalled mother/Countess, and Nicky Goldie brings some comic relief as the widow Capilet with Isabella Marshall’s Diana suitably similar in looks to Helena to make the trick plausible.
Christopher Bianchi has tetchy illness and regal power to perfection, and also brings a warmth to his kingly character, with Ian Barritt a stately Lafew, another whose wit leavens the real horrors of the story.
The play is a perfect counterpoint to the more familiar Hamlet, and both tour together through June.