All’s Well That Ends Well

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[If you have Flash, use the above control to hear a recording of the following text. If you don’t have Flash, my apologies. But you can read the transcript here below. ]

You’re about to hear a review of the British National Theatre’s production of All’s Well that Ends Well, seen live in a cinema in Gothenburg last week on Thursday 1st October. This review was completed on 8th October 2009. The text and recording of this review are by me, John Nixon, The Supercargo of You may freely redistribute all or part of this review for non-commercial purposes, provided you acknowledge The Supercargo and include a link to The Supercargo homepage.
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I’m cross with myself for not getting around to this sooner. I managed to review Phedre within 24 hours, but time has not been at a premium lately.

For anyone who just wandered in, the National Theatre in London has joined the “live streaming” movement and started broadcasting high definition, surround-sound films of on-stage performances. These are broadcast by satellite link to specially equipped cinemas and shown simultaneously to audiences around the world. At least that’s what I thought was happening. But I’ve just found out that some places are recording the broadcasts in order to show them at more reasonable local times.

Here in Sweden, we’re one hour ahead (when it’s 6 p.m. in London, it’s 7 p.m. here) so we get the live feed.

Phedre was fantastic. My first experience of the technology, but also a very gripping play and a wonderful performance by the cast. All’s Well That Ends Well was the second of the NTLive broadcasts and I was looking forward to it very much.

Perhaps too much.

It immediately seems unfair to say that. Unfair on the actors, on the people back-stage and on the performance. So I need to draw distinctions between what was going on in front of the audience in London, what was going on in the cinema where I sat, and what may have been going on in the spaces between.

Let’s start by saying that I thought the performance was very, very good. In particular, Michelle Terry made a wonderful Helena. It’s a big part and holds the whole play together, so it needs to be acted with authority. Which is just what she achieved. George Rainsforth’s Bertram was just as good-looking, immature and shallow as he needed to be. And Conleth Hill, as the bragging coward Parolles was a fine comic performance.

All’s Well is not one of Shakespeare’s more frequently performed plays, but I still surprised myself by not recognising the story. That can only mean I’d never read it before, let alone seen it performed. Which was something I felt a bit embarrassed about when I realised it, just before the play started. You see, I had been waxing eloquent to friends in an attempt to persuade more people to come along to see the play with me. “What’s it about,” they asked, and I obliged with a résumé of a play I now realise was A Winter’s Tale.
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[FairyTale – l. to r. Bertram reluctantly takes Helena’s Hand at the command of the King. Helena as Red Riding Hood and as Alice. Photos from the NTLive Internet page for All’s Well.]

All’s Well is a topsy-turvy version of a classic fairytale. The poor hero, who performs an impossible task to win the hand of the princess and live happily ever after, becomes the poor girl (Helena) who cures the king and wins the hand of her count (Bertram) only to be rejected. She’s neither pretty nor noble enough for him, and besides, he doesn’t love her. They marry because it is the king’s will, but Bertram leaves Helena, the marriage unconsummated, and sets out on his own fairytale adventure, to win renown in the wars. She follows him and wins him back by guile, and so the play ends well. So all’s well, isn’t it?

(The uncertainty about the ending was nicely highlighted by the wedding photo sequence at the very end of the performance.)

The National Theatre’s staging made very good use of the fairytale elements in the story as well as the way Shakespeare brings them into conflict with reality. (OK, stage reality.) Lots of references to fairytales and nursery rhymes in the costumes (Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood), in the shadow plays and animations at the back of the stage (in particular, Dulac’s illustrations from Perrault), in the lighting (Gothic in France, golden in Italy).

But plays – and Shakespeare’s plays in particular – can be helped along only so far by good staging. Eventually everything comes back to the words, the sense and the delivery. As I’ve said, there was nothing wrong in this performance with the delivery. But now I’ve read it through as well as seen it, I have to say that don’t think All’s Well is one of the bard’s better efforts. Some parts, especially in the first half are really difficult to follow. Wordy. Obscure.

I still don’t know what the Countess and her Clown were going on about. It didn’t seem to move the action along. I suppose in Shakespeare’s day it might have been side-splitting and helped people over the sticky bits, but if so it hasn’t aged well. Not that Clare Higgins as the Countess and Brendan O’Hea as the Clown weren’t giving it their all, but I really feel this performance would have been helped by some judicious pruning.

There were a number of puzzled and not a few glassy eyed looks in the foyer during the interval on 1st October as we all trooped out to stretch our legs.

The pace, though, picked up in latter part of the first half, and after the interval it bowled along nicely. Generally, everyone I spoke to after was satisfied and didn’t feel their evening had been wasted.

Technically though, there were aspects of the broadcast that were less than satisfactory.

The thing I was afraid of before seeing Phedre, and which I thought was completely buried by that experience, was that filmed stage performances can be so static. All’s Well has partly dug that back up. To some extent it’s the play, being so slow and sticky in the first half. But it could also be that the Olivier Stage at the National is just too big for these broadcasts.

I’ll try and explain. The most delightful things about seeing both Phaedre and All’s Well in these filmed versions are all the close-ups of the actors’ faces. Much of my experience of live performances in big theatres has been, of necessity, from the cheapest seats at the back of the stalls or up in the gods. In these filmed performances, seeing the actors’ expressions as well as their body language is just wonderful. But what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.

The close-ups give an intimate theatrical experience, but at the same time, they take away the audience’s options to see what else is going on on-stage. In Phaedre, that didn’t seem to matter, but in All’s Well, with a larger cast, I think it did. Now, I could see that the Director for Screen was trying to include middle distance and wide shots as well as tight close-ups, but I don’t think this worked out as well as it might have, perhaps because the stage was so large.

Yes, we did occasionally see people on stage reacting to whatever event was in focus, but only enough to realise that we were probably missing much more. I for one would have liked more, wider shots. But I would not have appreciated more of the fish-eye lens.

Where a wider shot of the Phaedre stage was able to capture the whole space without much distortion, the (mercifully few) fish-eye shots of the All’s Well stage gave me the feeling that I was looking through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses. Actors and set were swallowed up by the empty boards and the looming back wall. Only the person standing centre front stage was identifiable, though as a rotund and rather squat version of him- or herself.

I think this problem did not help the play in the first half. The long shots isolated the performers in an expanse of distorted space and the tight close-ups, excluding other business on stage; both contributed to making an already slow action seem more stilted.

Here’s a thought. How about experimenting with a split screen? Show a medium distance shot alongside a close-up. I think it could enhance the theatrical experience by giving the audience the opportunity to look elsewhere than just at the central characters. At the same time eschew the fish-eye lens. Please.

Unless you really want to stress Brechtian alienation.

Another technique to alienate the audience, I should think, is to have the sound out of synch with the actors’ lips.

There’s a noticeable delay over the Internet. Video-conferences quite frequently involve watching someone saying what you have already heard them say in your headphones. It was another thing I was afraid of when I went to see Phaedre, but there was no problem of that sort at all, then.

Unfortunately, I was aware of just such a delay throughout all of All’s Well. To be sure, the pre-performance interviews and documentary were far more seriously out of synch than the performance itself, and over the course of the play I adjusted to the delay, but whenever there was a sharp noise I was reminded of it. Someone slapped table, and then the hand went down. I should say, though, that my companions were divided about this, some insisted they couldn’t detect a delay in the play, so it may be a matter of individual sensitivity.

And what about those interviews? Just as my wife and I were regaling our friends with a description of Jeremy Iron’s terribly awkward interview before Phaedre, up on the screen comes an equally awkward performance introducing All’s Well. I have the impression that the interviewer and interviewee are squashed into a space that is too small for them, that they have neither of them rehearsed what they are doing, and that the interviewer is a terribly shifty looking fellow who towers over his interviewee. The interview indoors with director Marianne Elliott was less awkward, but her body language made it so obvious that she had no wish to be there.

Well, I suppose it contributes to the feeling that everything is “live” and that things might go wrong.

The little pre-performance documentary about the play was nice to see though, and especially to hear a much more relaxed Marianne Elliott confess that she was as ignorant of All’s Well as I was before she started to direct this production.

The interview on stage during the interval with the designer Rae Smith was interesting too, but I’d have been happier if it had been incorporated into the pre-performance documentary. Not least because she didn’t seem to know where in the action of the play the interval had come. I thought that was a bit odd.

I could say more, in particular about the freezing draught, poor local advertising and consequent poor turnout at Bio Roy in Gothenburg where I saw the play, but I think that would be to try your patience.

Instead, I’ll sum up. I enjoyed the play, though I would encourage Mr Shakespeare to re-write the first act! I thought the staging, performance and interpretation were excellent. The choice of camera angles was not always as fortunate as it might, perhaps, have been, though the Olivier stage may be inimical to live filming of this nature. The biggest technical disappointment was the out-of-synch sound.

I’ve got fewer stars in my eyes about live streaming now, but I’m still enthusiastic. What I said about Phaedre still holds true. I still think its wonderful here, in Gothenburg, in Sweden, to be able to see a performance direct from a stage of the National Theatre in London. A no-holds-barred performance, not dumbed down for a provincial public, or subtitled, or with actors performing at anything less than their professional peak.

And I’ll certainly be back on the 30th January for the next NTLive broadcast, Terry Pratchet’s Nation.

Thanks for listening. That was a review of the British National Theatre’s production and direct feed broadcast of All’s Well That Ends Well, made on the 8th October 2009. This text and recording are licensed under the Creative Commons attribution / non-commercial / share-alike license by me, John Nixon, The Supercargo of

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Revisited and revised for spelling and SEO fine-tuning. Flash based audio player replaced. 15 Jan 2017.

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