The Stuff of Dreams

Two contrasting productions of Shakespeare prove that the plays can still be made to work for us

Minette Marrin

After 400 years, the ways of producing Shakespeare remain astonishing in their infinite variety. Age cannot wither him, nor fashion nor Thespian controversy nor budget cuts — nor, I hope, the threatened loss of his plays as A level set texts. Though the point hardly needs proving, it is strikingly demonstrated by two of his comedies playing in London at the moment, at the opposite extremes of Shakespearean production. As You Like It is presented in the sparsest conventions of 16th-century theatre at the Globe and All’s Well That Ends Well at the Olivier is interpreted as a hugely imaginative, anachronistic, high-tech, kitsch-Gothic fairytale. Both productions are triumphantly successful despite some unevenness; together they prove that in the hands of gifted directors (Thea Sharrock and Marianne Elliott respectively) Shakespeare can be almost anything and still entirely him.

All’s Well is a notoriously difficult play, and certainly unsatisfactory as a comedy because it is almost impossible for a contemporary audience to accept that it does end well. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t very often performed. This production is the first ever at the National Theatre. 

The plot is one of Shakespeare’s least familiar. For those who need reminding, Helena, the resourceful orphaned daughter of a mere apothecary, has the presumption to fall in love with the noble young Bertram and to win his hand, despite the immense difference between them in rank, as a reward for curing their king of a fistula through her dead father’s great chymical arts. Bertram rejects her immediately after the wedding ceremony, as well he might, because in this production she is determinedly plain and rather too plainly determined.

However, the heroine then tricks him into bed, fatherhood and public acknowledgment, by taking the place between the sheets of a Florentine virgin he feels like ravishing. This, though effective, does not bode well for the future, at least not in contemporary terms of companionate marriage and perhaps not even in Elizabethan terms of arranged marriages, which Shakespeare is constantly subverting anyway. But this is not the stuff of naturalism: it is such stuff as dreams are made on, and nightmares too. It is the place of hopeless wishes and strange transformations, dark thickets of confusion, cunning and betrayal, of ambiguity and the unmasking of lies. It makes perfect sense to present All’s Well as the harsher kind of fairy story.

Here the director, and the designer Rae Smith, take this to delightful, child-like extremes. The eye is constantly intrigued by images from half-forgotten story-books, a red riding hood cloak, dramatic silhouettes of some of the characters in weird and Gothicky costumes, a curving path at the back of the stage down into darkness or up into adventures, into skies which drop gold dust or petals, or suddenly produce silly cut-out owls. The story is full of references to other stories, particularly to the Brothers Grimm. My companion described all this as “very Tim Burton”, but that’s fair enough, as Burton’s bizarre films are multi-derivative, drawing heavily and in some of the same ways on these folk and fairy memories.

Michelle Terry is excellent as Helena, making sense of an almost impossible part and giving real feeling to this strange heroine; making her gawky and unattractive physically, yet emotionally admirable and appealing, is something she seems to achieve with ease and with excellent diction. Clare Higgins is outstanding as the Countess of Rossillion, one of the rare mothers-in-law in literature, and possibly in life, who is loving, wise and good, without being boring. In an equally strong performance as the king, Oliver Ford Davies does everything to hold together an otherwise rather inconsistent cast.

The mood music, however, was often an irritant, apart from a triumphant moment at the cleverly bleak ending. Imposing mood music on Shakespeare productions (other than his own songs) seems to be a new convention. It is not just unnecessary, it is offensively manipulative and a particularly contemporary annoyance. In the Globe’s As You Like It, too, the distracting noise of musical promptings strikes up from time to time — here comes the seriously romantic bit — as though, given the current mass addiction to surround-sound, the many stimuli of theatre were not enough for a contemporary audience. 

Otherwise, As You Like It was a dream, in both senses — a dream of youth and desire set free for a time in a magic wood, and a dream of a production, full of youthful energy, agility and beauty, with very lovely singing of Shakespeare’s heart-stopping songs, an excellent Jacques and a particularly good Touchstone.

Dick Bird’s and Caroline Hughes’s costumes were rigorously in period, and very beautiful; so was the body language. In the beginning, when at court, Rosalind and Celia stand very chastely and rigidly, according to the convention of the times, with their hands folded modestly across their stomachers. This gives much greater meaning to the freedom they find in the forest of Arden, not only emotionally but also physically. It also perhaps gives more understanding to a 21st-century audience of some of the constraints of 16th-century society, without taking away from the universality of the play.

What’s more, it all proves that the starkest of sets and the minimum of props can fire the imagination, even with an almost archaic text. Equally, sexing Shakespeare up, though often successful, can sometimes be rather pointless and crude, as in the comic parts of the Old Vic’s current Winter’s Tale, in which rudely-shaped balloons are used, embarrassingly, to suggest bucolic bawdry.

The Globe and National productions, however, make the most of their chosen constraints and freedoms. The usual reconciliation scene at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies ends in this All’s Well in a magnificent lack of an ending, with a sudden freeze frame of the young couple caught in fear and uncertainty. By contrast, the jig at the end of As You Like It, just before Rosalind’s epilogue — with all the cast stomping enthusiastically in the golden evening light — was a moment of joy.

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