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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Alex Waldmann and company/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

The Royal Shakespeare Company is at pains to point out that Nancy Meckler’s revival of this most fascinating and "modern" of all the so-called Shakespearean “problem” plays, is part of the final season programmed by outgoing artistic director Michael Boyd.
Incoming artistic director Gregory Doran must be relieved, therefore, that it won’t supersede in the public memory his own 2004 Swan Theatre version in which Judi Dench became the first artist in the RSC’s history – setting a vulgar precedent – to have her name above the title when the show transferred to the West End.
Dench played the Countess of Rossillion, one of the greatest (there aren’t that many) “old lady” roles in the canon, and the most charming by a mile. Meckler’s Countess is Charlotte Cornwell, a long-ago Rosalind at the RSC, fretfully overseeing her son Bertram’s departure to the Italian wars while adopting his rebuffed wife, Helena, as a daughter, almost.
Helena (Joanna Horton, severely over-parted, alas), like the Countess, is one of Shakespeare’s loveliest creations, and one of his most challenging, a poor doctor’s daughter who cures the King of France (a sprightly, very funny Greg Hicks) of his fistula and is invited by the grateful monarch to choose a husband from “a youthful parcel of noble bachelors.” To Bertie’s undisguised horror, she chooses him.
The play unravels as a pilgrimage by Helena across France and Italy to Compostella to claim her man (which she does by a bed-trick involving a girl Bertram lusts after) while Bertram (fresh faced, muscularly toned Alex Waldmann, this season’s Orlando and Horatio) wins his spurs. At the same time, Bertram’s friend, the aptly named braggart Parolles (Jonathan Slinger, this season’s exceptional Hamlet) – he’s all words and very little “do” – is exposed as an empty vessel.
The production, designed by Katrina Lindsay, is an inelegant mixture of post-modern cool – the Countess lives in a chateau of glass flower boxes and serial music, with too few chairs – and sweaty contemporary application, complete with heavy rap and rock; the soldiers set off in their regulation fatigues, punching the air and generally slobbering. I shall weep with relief when the next Shakespeare tragedy or romance in the UK fails to invoke Iraq or Afghanistan both on stage and in the programme notes.
Two years ago, in a Shakespeare’s Globe revival also superior to this one, Bertram was played as a priggish princeling in a permanent sulk, whereas Waldmann cleverly introduces notes of remorse and self-doubt about his own behaviour quite early on. In a way, he’s playing against the character, but he does this very well.
His come-uppance in marriage comes as a release from his own youthful sensitivity, and matches that of Parolles, whom Slinger builds up as a reckless, fantastically orotund fathead undone in a flurry of exposure, sinking into cowed quietude, much more of a changed man than either an exposed Falstaff or the humiliated Malvolio.
In avoiding a convincing design solution, and assembling a company that certainly looks like an interregnum bunch of mercenaries, Meckler falls perilously between two benchmark stools: the gorgeous 1981 main stage RSC version by Trevor Nunn (Ashcroft was the Countess; Harriet Walter was Helena), which was a late 19th century Chekhovian chapter in the Crimean War, and the rigorously, austere Caroline setting of Peter Hall 10 years later in the Swan.
Meckler’s revival does have its own sort of lucidity in at least revealing once again what a good narrative (derived from Boccaccio) and moving occasion this still ridiculously underrated play can be in the theatre. But you need a more affecting and resourceful Helena to carry the evening and drive the changes of heart and fortune.
Minor compensations are provided by Nicolas Tennant as the Countess’ grumpy and lascivious clown, Lavatch, and David Fielder as a snooty Lord Lafeu. Even the minor lords speak wisely in this play: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”  So a patchwork production is okay, then?   


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