Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Bristol production of All’s Well That Ends Well gets plenty of laughs while exploring the dark world of Shakespearean sexual politics

[Images by Mark Douet]

As I watch the actors dance at the end of All’s Well that Ends Well in Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre, I’m unnerved by the contradictory play I’ve just seen. Intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny, All’s Well that Ends Well also tells some uncomfortable truths about sex, love and marriage.

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The way in which determined Helena (Eleanor Yates) single-mindedly corners Bertram (Craig Fuller) into marriage, and finally love, raises disturbing questions. Bertram’s disgust at Helena’s low social status and his unwillingness to consummate their marriage is overcome by a sneaky bed trick and Helena’s faked death. Courtship led alternately by devotion, duty, deception and finally death, comes to a head in a play that cuts close to the bone.

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Helena’s anomalous position at the French court as the daughter of a celebrated doctor allows her to cure the French King (Christopher Bianchi) of an anal fistula, securing in exchange Bertram’s reluctant hand. The embarrassing bodily illness lurking behind the sacrament of marriage hints at the raw sexual nature of desire that beats at the heart of all polite courtship, even pulsating behind Helena’s virginal devotion.

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This SATF production was partially rewritten by Dominic Power to “add an interesting layer or two to the central relationship” (according to Artistic Director Andrew Hilton) and very much zooms in on Bertram and Helena. The production is set in mid-19th century Europe during the troubled years of the Franco-Austrian War and Italian unification.

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The army camp’s masculine camaraderie and banter adds an interesting counterbalance to the French court, obsessed with courtship and curing the King.
The raucous atmosphere of the army camp is also reflected in Bertram’s indiscriminate male sexuality as the soldier-seducer of virgins. He gets his comeuppance in the aforementioned bed trick scene, not realising that beautiful local virgin Diana (Isabella Marshall) has been replaced by Helena.

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The whole cast effuses energy and enthusiasm, clearly enjoying the richness of the text. With her expressive face and impeccable comic timing, Julia Hills gives a brilliant performance as Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rousillon. Her tenderness towards Helena – devastated by Bertram’s desertion – is truly moving.

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Another tour de force is Paul Currier as the boorish and pontificating soldier Parolles, whose emasculating humiliation at the hands of his fellow soldiers is both comic and disturbing. Eleanor Yates, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Helena, combining steely determination with loving devotion.

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.