You wouldn’t have thought it was a hard decision. What would you choose given the option between playing soldiers and bedding your nubile young wife?
In Shakespeare’s battles of the sexes nothing is simple. All’s Well That Ends Well, which opened at the RSC in Stratford on Thursday, is a rom-com with a difference.
Instead of the young maiden being pursued by a hungry young buck it is the fair Helena who sets her cap at the son of her adopted mother.
The rather handsome Bertram is a bit of a boy’s boy. He enjoys being at court, going off to war on behalf of the king of France, and hanging about with his drinking chums, including the rather effete Parolles. He has no interest in Helena other than as a platonic friend.
But the infatuated orphan has a cunning plan. She uses some of her father’s medicine to save the ailing king. He’s so grateful that he forces Bertrum to marry the girl. Even then, it’s not all plain sailing and she has her work cut out getting the man of her dreams.
Given what she has to go through most of us would have cut our losses and found someone else – particularly when she’s offered the cream of the king’s men - but Helena is a very determined young lady.
All’s Well That Ends Well? Possibly.
Joanna Horton and Alex Waldmann make a lovely warring couple although she lacks the fire of that other great Shakespearean bride – Taming Of The Shrew’s Kate. Waldmann’s frightened groom is an entertaining mix of desperation and deviousness. Their game of love and hate is rather engaging.
The second thread of the story running through the production centres on Parolles, who could give lessons in mischief. Jonathan Slinger’s Dali-esque poseur is a tremendous character blessed with a waxed moustache of absurd design, a braying laugh and a thick cowardly streak, as yellow as his tunic, running right through his heart.
For all his affections he is arch and a bit of a fool, and never more so than when he hysterically collapses during a torture scene inflicted by Bertrum’s army buddies.
Slinger looks far more comfortable in this strong character role than as the lead in the RSC’s Hamlet that is running in rep throughout the summer with this production.
Also appearing in both plays is company regular Greg Hicks upon whose head sits the crowns of both Denmark (Hamlet) and France.
The versatile Hicks is languid and rather resigned as the dying king of France. Once miraculously cured the actor does handstands and a cartwheel across the stage. Not a very regal move but rather impressive.
Director Nancy Meckler has set the story in one of those nether times and includes a sparse set which gives little away. It’s seemingly modern with the soldiers affecting desert uniforms intended for Afghanistan yet the women’s clothes are quaintly demure and frumpy. Helena really doesn’t make the best of herself.
There’s some good support from Charlotte Cornwall as Bertrum’s mother, the Countess of Rossillion, but the part is grossly underwritten. She wears a pained expression throughout and has little to do other than wring her hands.
There’s been a lot of criticism in the national press recently about actors’ inability to enunciate. Perhaps the RSC should offer classes for those aspiring to a career on the stage or screen for no member of their company ever fails to deliver beautifully clear diction (in this, particularly, Hicks and Cliff Burnett as Rynaldo).
All’s Well That Ends Well runs until September 26. For tickets/ info call the box office 01789 403492 or visit www.rsc.org.uk