It was a good weekend for obscure Shakespeare in London. In between a version of the first quarto Hamlet and a rare revival of 1 Henry VI, I found time to get to the Globe, bravely leading off its main summer season with its first ever production of the little-loved All’s Well that Ends Well. It was also a rare evening Globe outing for me, complete with sporadic rain and chill winds. Happily, the production was strong enough that nature failed to dint enjoyment.
In an opening of unusual informality, cast members emerged to chat casually with the groundlings and welcome us to the performance. James Garnon set the comic tone with a comic mock-French series of announcements. “La telefone portable? Non!” and the production opened with the audience already in high spirits. There was an emphasis throughout on keeping the audience laughing wherever possible, which perhaps backfired in more serious scenes; the laughter was kept up throughout Bertram’s refusal of Helena, for example, at the expense of the emotional impact of the exchange on both characters.
That said, the strength of John Dove’s production (which reunited much of the cast of last year’s Henry VIII) was its thoroughgoing good humour. This was particularly stressed in two key performances: Garnon’s Parolles and Michael Bertenshaw’s Lafeu. Garnon was the consummate braggart in plumed hat and spurs, with a confident bluster that endeared him instantly to the audience. Cleverly, however, he let slip enough honest feeling to prevent the character becoming a caricature, particularly as he wished Helena to a good husband, stumbling over his words. This Parolles used bluster as a way of concealing his basic nerviness, which manifested in the disputes with Lafeu and was given full vent when blindfolded and rattling off the movements of his own army. Yet the laughter finally stopped as the blindfold was removed and he was left, bitter and self-loathing, on the stage.
Bertenshaw, meanwhile, gave a tremendously splenetic performance as Lafeu, railing and stomping about the stage. This hardy old man posed a physical threat to Parolles through sheer vigour, and even his more stale jokes had impact thanks to the heartiness of their delivery. The back-and-forth between the two men was entirely controlled by Lafeu, who moved in a heartbeat from teasing to forceful anger while Parolles attempted to build confidence and was ultimately quashed. Their final reunion was surprisingly tender, as Parolles gratefully cowered before his new master.
The period production was relatively formal, with a brass ensemble lending itself to the ceremonial and militaristic atmosphere. Unusually for the Globe, large shutters with painted scenes were used throughout to indicate changes of location and time of day, which were beautiful and helpful but seemed very out of place behind a bare stage. The formality of the set-up, though, was balanced by Sam Cox’s gruff, moody King of France, who scowled and grumbled whether hobbling on a cane, in a wheelchair or striding after his cure. This King was not a listener, and his offer of husbands for the ecstatic Diana was comic in its belligerence. Cox was most impressive, though, in his fearsome condemnation of Bertram, both at the betrothal and during his later arraignment, where the authority of a King unaccustomed to disobedience came to the fore.
Ellie Piercy and Sam Crane made for an extremely interesting lead couple. Helena is a relatively wet character, but Piercy gave her some gusto by making the most of her banter with Parolles and her control of the betrothal scene. Standing centrally, she called forth her prospective partners one at a time and dismissed them easily. Bertram, meanwhile, was a petulant child, with head permanently tilted upwards in a display of arrogance. This continued into the court scenes, to the annoyance of the King. His refusal of Helena was left pleasingly ambiguous, but was clearly related to the public nature of the scene – his appeal was to his audience, not to her. Yet in their parting scene, Bertram was already showing ambivalence about his choice. His admiration for his new wife’s loyalty left him gazing quietly at her, and he gave her a long and affectionate kiss, after which he stood and watched her depart in confusion. It was Parolles who galvanised him to leave for the wars.
Bertram’s disquiet throughout extended to his awkward conversations with Diana (Naomi Cranston), who had a self-possession and upright dignity that reduced him to fumbling and nervous hand-wringing. She was accompanied in her early appearances by Mary Doherty and Sophie Duval as Mariana and the Widow, who made up a fearsome double-act that shouted enthusiastic praise after the army and threatened the exhausted Parolles with vehemence. These bolshy women enacted merciless judgement on men, and the Widow remained unafraid to tell Helena what she really thought of their trekking. Diana showed some girlish excitement at the approach of the troops, but held herself calm when in Bertram’s and the King’s presence, throwing into contrast the relatively emotional inconsistencies of the men.
The second half was weaker than the first, a fault of the play rather than the production – the absence of the bed-trick is difficult to negotiate on-stage, and it was difficult to be sure exactly what had happened and when, until the final reckoning. Bertram held the stage well, though, displaying suitable concern over the news of Helena’s death. His reaction to her unobtrusive entrance into the court at the end, however, was moving – he fell to his knees before her and embraced her in love and relief. She knelt to be with him; there was no ambivalence over the importance of this reunion, just satisfaction that the problems of two lovers had been resolved.
Elsewhere, Colin Hurley made for an Lavatch, a traditional Cockney servant whose jokes occasionally fell flat (the “Oh Lord Sir” section was a complete non-event), but who kept up the light-hearted feel. The Brothers Dumaine and the Interpreter were wonderful in delivering their made-up foreign language and motioning to each other in jest while Parolles was in captivity, and the struggles of the various lords to prevent each other from lynching the unsuspecting fool were entertaining. I was surprised, too, at how many lines translated into good, pure jokes: Lafeu’s attempt to accept Parolles was instantly undone as Parolles entered and Lafeu spontaneously burst out with “Who’s his tailor?!”, and the King’s dismissal of Diana with “I do not like her now” was met with roars from the theatre.
This strong production made a great case for the play’s effectiveness on the modern stage, and acted as a good compliment to the National’s very different but equally entertaining version. It’s a production, too, that will get better as the company continue to build on the conviviality and connections to the crowd. A great start to the Globe’s year.