WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: All's Well in Stratford and the Proms with Alistair McGowan

WhatsOnStage logo

Unless I've forgotten one, I think that last night's All's Well That Ends Well was the first on the main Stratford-upon-Avon stage since 1989, both Peter Hall and Gregory Doran mounting their versions since then in the Swan, though Doran's (with Judi Dench as the Countess of Rossillion) did play a season in the West End.

So it's a big act of faith, or a high risk strategy, to present so rarely seen a play in the new big thrust arena and, while Nancy Meckler's revival is far from perfect, she certainly allows an audience to engage with the delights and complexities of the piece in a fresh and engaging production.

Alex Waldmann's Bertram is as unusual and compelling a performance as was Michael Siberry's in the Hall production, a severe and measured affair in Caroline costumes that was the very opposite of Meckler's, which places the Countess of Rossillion (Charlotte Cornwell) in a chic retreat of glass flower caskets and Michael Nyman-ish music and sends the soldiers off to war in a blaze of heavy metal.

Jonathan Slinger makes the chastening of the braggart Parolles (a character who's all talk, literally, all mouth and no trousers) something as upsetting and tragic as that of Malvolio, and Greg Hicks is simply wonderful as the King of France, recovering from his debilitating fistula with a joyful burst of capoeira moves.

The cast of All's Well That Ends Well (RSC)
© Ellie Kurttz

The production's composer, Keith Clouston, has written a revealing programme note about the impulse behind his music, creating sound worlds reflecting the radical difference between Helena - a simpering, under-powered performance by Joanna Horton - and the bellicose Bertram: the sensuality of Arab music on lute, flute and electronic soundscaping, and the rap and rock on a compilation CD called Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran.

One thing the programme doesn't have is any reference to the RSC's production history which stretches from a revelatory John Barton revival in 1967 to Trevor Nunn's farewell in 1981, one of his finest novelistic productions, sending Harriet Walter's Florence Nightingale-like Helena off to the Crimean War and bathing Peggy Ashcroft's Countess in a gorgeous Chekhovian nostalgia.

For All's Well, which used to be bracketed with Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as a "problem" play, is in fact nothing of the kind, and Meckler's version certainly proves there are fresh and surprising discoveries in it at every turn, in every scene.

I was reflecting on some of these afterwards in the Dirty Duck with my old friend Pam Harris, who used to run the Duck in the days when the place was synonymous with an RSC first night; nowadays the actors and their friends and agents hang around in the theatre for drinks in the main foyer, spilling out last night onto the vast stone patio in front, a huge babbling concourse of a summer's night party.

In the interval, I bumped into Ron Daniels, the former RSC associate director who now works mostly in America, paying his first visit to the new theatre; he was too surprised by it to know whether he liked it or not. And, in the distance, actress Linda Marlowe was hugger mugger with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, plotting their RSC collaboration-in-progress on the story of Queen Lear.

Carol Ann is officially on holiday, according to her agent, which is why she hasn't composed a verse to celebrate the arrival of the new Prince of Cambridge, George Alexander Louis.

I heard the announcement of the royal baby's name while driving to the Albert Hall on Wednesday night to join BBC Proms director Roger Wright in his box for a wonderful evening - my birthday treat - of Tchaikovsky, Elgar, William Walton and Granville Bantock.

Granville who, exactly? He's a forgotten Edwardian composer, lyrical and romantic, whom the Proms are "rediscovering" this year, and his intriguingly sensual Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra was gloriously, almost unnervingly, well played by Raphael Wallfisch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the meticulous supervision of conductor Jac van Steen.

"This could lead to a new BBC2 television series, Never Mind the Bantocks," quipped Roger over interval drinks. His other guests included former Barbican head of programming, Graham Sheffield, who's returned from running the Hong Kong Arts Festival to restructure the arts wing of the British Council; and star WhatsOnStage Awards party guest presenter Alistair McGowan.

Alistair will be in Edinburgh for the final week of the fringe festival next month, reviving all his favourite impressions including those of other comedians you don't have time to catch elsewhere. He's also working on a new show about the French composer Erik Satie.

Everyone in the room had seen the previous evening's BBC4 drama about the disastrous Broadway production of Private Lives starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Alistair had admired the performances of Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter, though he wisely suggested that, as "impressions," there was still some way to go.

I felt that West in particular did an excellent job of reproducing Burton's voice, but in small and contrasting bursts, so that aspects of its sonority and Welshness lay glinting on the floor like shards of coloured glass.

A case of All's Welsh That Ends Welsh, perhaps. An Irish variation might have been All's Walsh That's Enda Walsh; or is that a mini-festival of the Cork dramatist's finest work?

See also: Our review of All's Well That Ends Well