Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
This is one of Shakespeare’s plays I have been more sceptical about – it seems hard to me to get behind a female lead, full of agency as she is, who effectively forces a man into marriage (twice!), or to get behind a man, wronged as he is, whose major character notes are rudeness and lechery. But the Globe managed to bring together a set of wonderfully flawed, real people, with a depth of love and friendship outside the lead romance, and hope that maybe they would all be better for their experiences. All might actually be well after all.
This was a fairly typical Sam Wanamaker Playhouse type setting, putting the cast in token ruffs and bodices, mainly. I’d like to make something significant out of Helena’s clothing changes – the only one who changed, she progressed from back coat to white dress, to grey to red. But I am not sure what exactly I’d like to make – except to note that the black jacket was a bit plague-doctor for my liking, but the ombre red number was quite nice.*
It was an incredibly dark production – I think they only used the main candelabras once – and it used the beautiful interior largely as is**. We had a floor-on-a-floor which was lifted off piecemeal by the cast, including very loudly (I think deliberately) by Bertram during a speech of Helena’s where we did not need the distraction. At some point too, the SWP has built in a trapdoor (reasonably in-period) and a raise-able mid-section within the trapdoor which could be filled with water and lit from within – which they did while it was filled with water at one point, so I am assuming that didn’t use candlelight. Also for the mise-en-scene, it could only be emptied somewhat noisily (as it was during the second half) and the mechanism had a slight grind to it which indicated it might need oiling. But these are very minor quibbles, compared to the incredible advantages of such an intimate space – the connection with cast yes, but other wonderful touches like being able to actually SMELL Helena’s herbs as she prepared her remedy for the king.
Nigel Cooke was stately and imperious as the aforementioned King of France, moving particularly well from infirmity to health while retaining a stubborn temper as a strong character note***. I really really loved his interactions with Martina Laird’s Countess of Roussilon, who was a wonderful, supportive but challenging parental figure to both Bertram and Helena, but really came into her own person in the chemistry between the Countess and the King, which showed respect, depth of friendship, and maybe a hint of additional warmth. 10 out of 10, would happily write fanfic about their early days at court. Or even their later days post-play.
It’s clearly a common thing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to have scenes that bleed into each other and characters that don’t leave the stage at the end of their scene. It fitted with the way time jumps in the play, which I must admit I didn’t quite follow. How quickly did Helena get to Florence? And how come it took her nine months to get back****? How long from then until the final scenes – was she meant to have got up to denounce Bertram from her delivery bed?
Talking of the denunciation – Paige Carter’s Diana was so obviously loving every second of her time in the limelight, confusing the heck out of the men, and good on her. Would also happily give her a spin-off where she goes around catfishing/honey trapping other men… Similarly Imogen Doel’s Paroles was wonderfully, exuberantly OTT (especially of costume) and with all the bolshie charm of the fabulous Derry Girls (if you haven’t been watching it, do – it’s been bloody brilliant). She may have (temporarily) been brought down by the courtiers of France, but you expected it wouldn’t last long.
I also loved Hannah Ringham as the countess’s clown, particularly when she started singing her messages to her mistress. (There was a fair bit of singing, all-in-all. Nothing like the choral version of Video Games from Othello which I am still haunted by, and I was a bit discombobulated when the marriage ceremony turned into a group rendition of a passage from Hamlet. Please do not mix your plays. It is very confusing. But I do like a cast that can sing too…) Shaun Mason played Laefu very deftly as a sort of middle manager type who is not here for your (or rather, Paroles’s) nonsense, although perhaps a little too young to have a daughter for Bertram to wed. He was in place of Ronald Pickavance, who was presumably off sick. January 2018 has been the only time I’ve had understudies since I started this thing, and both productions I have seen have had people filling in. Flu season really has been BRUTAL this year.
On to the leads. Bertram’s a tricky character to warm to. Will Merrick managed to keep him just the right side of petulant – his love for his mother seemed genuine, but there’s a limit to what you can do for someone who is so rude (and then so horny). I could see an alternative version where the character comes across as catastrophically impulsive, and it is therefore a suitable match for him to be supported by the deep calculation and coolness of Helena. This version, at the interval, felt very much like a teenager who just wasn’t ready for marriage. But then the time jumps (and the fighting) may help him to grow, and there seemed enough genuine respect for hope in their relationship at the end.
Ellora Torchia’s Helena was clever, impetuous, and just so slightly gawky and awkward. Which rang true (especially when combined with her in-text insecurity!) but I wouldn’t have minded if she had been a bit more obviously lovable and less gauche. In the eyes of the other characters she’s a bit of Mary Sue – everyone seems to love her instantly – and I don’t think a touch of that would have gone amiss. Instead, the only interaction we get with the French Court is her managing to insult most of the young lads, and I didn’t get a sense that she valued the Countess’s love as she should. She does better with the red-clad-but-totally-not-prostitutes ladies of Florence though – I very much enjoyed her winning them over to her convoluted plans, and their staunch support of her (travelling to France! Helping with childbirth! Lying to the King!). I think I ended up with more faith in the sisterhood than the romance – but I’m not sure I mind. A pack of new friends is definitely ending well in my book…
* And I am sure this says something about my internal bias but when I see three women all dressed in red and pretty revealing bodices, as the Widow, Diana and Mariana were, I definitely assume prostitutes rather than virtuous women.
** Although I LOVED the filing cabinets they put in for The Secret Theatre…
*** The restoring to health scene was the one with the underwater light and it was gloriously mystical – think full-on Gandalf-restores-Theoden-to-health but with a bath rather than a staff.
**** I am assuming she doesn’t walk back!