Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Andrew Hilton
Produced by Bristol Tobacco Factory
7th-11th June 2016
This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub and published here.
How can you make someone love you when they don’t? It’s the subject of many pop songs, but even some great fans of Shakespeare will be unaware that he wrote a play on the theme. All’s Well That Ends Well, in this Bristol Tobacco Factory production, is a witty comedy brim-full of determined young women, haughty men, and the tricks they use on each other. The company are performing it in repertory with Hamlet in a season which marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
The Lowry’s Quays Theatre is turned into an in-the-round venue where we visit the salons and the battlefields of the mid-19th Century, mostly conveyed by subtly effective lighting, a few chairs, and an array of period costumes. Giving us the feeling of an Oscar Wilde play provides an ingenious touchstone for the audience, and indeed, Shakespeare and Wilde could almost have conceived the play together, with its characters’ mannered manipulations and sometimes saucy humour.
The cast do a sterling job of carrying the audience along on a journey whose twists and turns many will not be familiar with, even if they recognise some of the plot elements from his better-known plays (faking your own death, giving someone a very important ring, pretending to be someone else – it’s a kind of Shakespearean comedy bingo card). Though unfamiliar, the language sparkles and flies about the place as the actors perform to all four sides, the soliloquys feeling like personal appeals to the audience.
Eleanor Yates is pitch-perfect as Helena, the young woman who determinedly ensures her own destiny. She is surrounded by an ensemble just as strong, particularly Chris Bianchi as the King of France, whose creaking infirmity is healed by Helena and replaced by a regal mixture of power and mercy. Paul Currier’s braggart soldier Parolles is also hilariously spot-on. Craig Fuller as the scornful Bertram gives us a love interest for Helena so boyish, intensely flying from scene to scene, that we can believe what we need to about him: that he is truly brought up short and taught a lesson in the play’s final moments.
Perhaps one of the reasons that things flow so smoothly to this conclusion is that director Andrew Hilton and associate director Dominic Power have taken a somewhat cavalier approach to the text at times, with cuts, changes, and even the addition of scenes and lines to change one character’s role entirely. All this is done seamlessly, which is a very impressive feat, and keeps the performance accessible and entertaining throughout. However, some purists may feel uncomfortable with the “Frankenstein effect” by which this less-performed play has been brought to life and its stranger plot elements made more palatable for a modern audience.
The other problem is that this touring production has failed to adjust itself completely to the space that it is in. At times, unlucky spectators will find that actors just so happen to stand directly in front of them at a key moment, and then stay still for minutes at a stretch. No wonder several audience members moved from the stalls to the upper levels during the interval.
This is a rare chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, but those who come for that reason will leave the theatre with more than just the satisfaction of having ticked it off their list. Whatever your feelings on the changes to the text, the effect is a production that is comfortable, funny and, aside from some issues with sightlines, very easy to enjoy.
Star rating: ***.5 Sparkling