Seymour Centre, April 3
With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.
One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.
The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.
In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.
Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.
Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.
Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.
Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.
Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.
Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.
There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.
As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.
Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.
The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.
Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.
But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.
Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.
All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940