Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
All's Well that Ends Well – the Guildford Shakespeare Company at St Nicholas Church, Guildford.
Wonderful theatre, in Guildford pre-West End.
I can’t praise this production highly enough – Shakespeare at his most accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking. Hannah Morrish's performance as Helena was a triumph.
Enjoy the GSC's unique interpretation of Shakespeare in the beautiful setting of St Nicholas Church, Bury Street, Guildford (the church with the green roof across the bridge at the bottom of the High Street, in this picture.)
13th October – November 2nd 2019
By the end of the first scene of the GSC’s production of “All’s Well that Ends Well” we knew that we were enjoying the work of a first-class team: the adaptation, set, beautifully integrated musical arrangements and above all the actors all operating at a high level of excellence. This is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, which leave the audience with unresolved issues allowing directors to interpret its meanings creatively. David Littler, the director of this production, has taken up the challenge magnificently.
The story is about love, honour, betrayal, lies, trickery, and the mix of goodness and weakness that makes up the human soul. There’s a buffoon (Parolles) who makes us laugh and is punished for his shallow boasting and weak character. There are fairy tale tropes – rings that unravel a deception; a low-born character who receives a high-born marriage partner as a reward from a ruler.
But in this story the low-born is female: Helena, a deceased doctor’s daughter, who falls in love with Bertram, the son of her guardian, Countess Roussillon. The Countess loves Helena as her own daughter. Bertram, conscious of his own inherited status, rejects Helena on the grounds that she’s beneath him, and goes off to Paris to fulfil his social role as a gentleman. When Helena goes to Paris too, with a successful cure for the dying French Queen (a gender reversal from the original), she is rewarded by being told to pick one of three marriage partners, and of course she chooses the reluctant Bertram. He is furious and refuses to consummate the marriage into which he is forced by the Queen. He leaves the court next day with his friend Parolles, to join an army against insurgents. He writes to Helena telling her that she will never be his wife until she wears his ring and carries his child. Since he is staying away from her, this seems impossible. But Helena is resourceful and single-minded, and with the help of Diana, a young virgin, tricks Bertram into unwittingly consummating their marriage, rendering it an unbreakable social and legal bond. The dénouement is a win for Helena, but we are left in some doubt how happy the marriage may turn out to be in the long run. Her most rewarding relationships seem, in this production, to be with the three female characters who have supported her plans: the Countess, now a loving mother-in-law; the Queen; and Diana, the virgin who helped her to snare Bertram. We wonder, has all really ended well?
Hannah Morrish as Helena brings to the part all the nuances of love, fear, disappointment, joy and hope that the complex narrative demands. Her delivery of Shakespeare’s lines render them her own, as comprehensible to our modern ears as they were to the Elizabethans’. Robert Mountford’s interpretation of Parolles is a delight: a leggy, round-eyed, flamboyantly expressive character who can puff up with braggart’s pride and deflate comically with fear or humiliation next second, when confronted. Miranda Foster plays the Queen with tremendous spirit and the Countess with all the warmth that one would wish for in such a loving mother-in-law.
The music must be mentioned: the theme from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the original and as a piano theme running through the play; Patti Smith; Joni Mitchell, and Chrissie MacFee’s beautiful “The Songbird” stay in my memory of this enchanting evening.
This review is also on Essential Surrey's Reviews page https://www.essentialsurrey.co.uk/theatre-arts/alls-well-ends-well-review/