Jeremy Malies in south-east London
30 October 2022
A seldom-performed Shakespeare play by a newish company at a new venue on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis. What’s not to like?
Well, there was indeed a lot to like about All’s Well That Ends Well at Rotherhithe and East London Playhouse, but there were also some significant problems here. If writing a theatre review involves, in part, conveying the whole course of the reviewer’s evening, I’ll start by saying that I travelled from the Sussex coast for this, wanting to show support for what I felt was a commendable project. The Rotherhithe Playhouse company was founded by Phil Willmott after the first Covid lockdown in 2020, staging several adaptations of classics in various outdoor and indoor venues in Rotherhithe, before moving into their new home where they continue to serve the community.
After speaking to half a dozen locals in the streets of Rotherhithe, I gave up asking for the Playhouse and began to talk to people about “a theatre project” since it is obviously a new endeavour. At the third pub I visited, somebody was willing to put down their pint and (only on a hunch) walk me towards a small green building called “The Hithe”, where I met a cluster of fellow critics all of whom had struggled to find the venue. There was an odd, tense, and definitely chaotic vibe front of house.
The performance area is a minuscule but serviceable and versatile space that can take 50 spectators at most in a thrust configuration. There were backstage difficulties that saw us begin 20 minutes late (always a bugbear for reviewers) but I did better at hiding my frustration than Jan Olivia Hewitt as the Countess who almost came out of character such was her annoyance as she sat near us, presumably feeling exposed.
The delay gave me time to take in a detailed but uncluttered set featuring Greek statutory that effectively suggested the palace of Roussillon. Baroque music (possibly Handel) playing almost throughout hit a sweet spot for me amid warm saffron light created by multiple flickering lamps. Despite the size of the stage, the cast managed to suggest expansive sweeps of land when we saw the army camp before Florence.
The acting was broad, with exaggerated movement and postures, and most notably much sawing at the air with hands of the exact kind outlawed by Hamlet. Initially I thought the cast were being deliberately unsubtle in order to reference commedia dell’arte figures with pantomime elements. This was most notable from Luke Lindemann as Parolles. Should this be a criticism? Was I perhaps missing the point since the play is not known for subtlety, with many of the characters being archetypes?
As Helena, Miranda Kent did well when exploring the most interesting aspect of her part. She is the daughter of a recently dead court physician and has inherited her father’s medical brilliance which she uses to save the life of the King of France (Ian Macnaughton). Offered absolutely any reward, she asks for the hand in marriage of prince Bertram played by Raman Kribi. Helena knows that Bertram has no interest in her, and the odd, sordid, and contrived pact is made that Bertram will only marry Helena if she can prove that they have had sex. Cue the staple ingredient of such plays – the bed trick. It is when she occasionally had her character step back from a win-at-all-cost mentality, and exhibit some true introspection and self-loathing for being driven in this way, that Kent became credible and impressive.
The accomplice in the bed trick is Vicky Relph playing Diana. She was easily the stand-out performer here in terms of range, impression of spontaneity, and the way she negotiated some odd clunky phrases of modern English that director Phil Willmott introduced into the dialogue.
All the cast save one follow the contemporary trend of using their natural, resting accent. The exception is Kribi who – taking his cue from the fact that we are at a demonstrably French court – uses a thick French accent full of elisions and soft ‘v’s. It soon proved wearing (even unintelligible) and I didn’t understand why Willmott encouraged or allowed this.
Bernard Shaw used to go into raptures about the role of the Countess, saying it was one of the finest parts that Shakespeare ever wrote for a woman. Always sprightly and energetic even in his nineties, Shaw disliked being cooped up in a theatre, but a London production of this play would always see him in the stalls on first night. I don’t think he would have been enamoured of Hewitt who resorted to bizarre treatment of the metre and over-stressing of pronouns that destroyed meaning.
The play, as written, is not desperately good which is why it is often overlooked. But it has feminist messages about solidarity between women and the patriarchy which should resonate more. You need a uniformly strong cast and a clever, flexible overarching concept to make it take flight. Sadly, this production rarely got airborne. There were some memorable moments, especially a reflective monologue late on by the King in which you could sense Shakespeare revisiting the wonderful “this sceptered isle” by John of Gaunt in Richard II. Macnaughton rose to this challenge impressively, expressing every nuance in the ebb and flow of his character’s thoughts. But it was a rare moment of excellence.
It struck me as an odd, misplaced piece of chutzpah for a fledgling company to open a new venue with such an unwieldy and unrewarding piece when the group will never get a second chance to make a first impression here. The general mayhem both in the waiting area and at the start would have had a less patient critic spin on his or her heel. I have scrupulously highlighted the positives here but, overall, you would have to echo Macbeth’s words to Lennox: “’Twas a rough night.”