It’s called All’s Well that Ends Well and it goes something like this: Helen is madly (and unrequitedly) in love. With no fairies, witches, or devils about, it falls to her to devise her own miracles. She follows her beloved, (the not wholly adorable) Bertram, to court and then to war; meanwhile, he desperately seeks to avoid being forced into marrying her. Oh, and there’s some confusion behind a sheet, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
There is much to admire in Nitwit’s production. The play works best, when it conjures a kind of sprezzatura vibe, an air of nonchalance that disguises the finely judged and diligently executed directorial decision-making. Carefully choreographed tableaux vivants and transitions are well-complemented by simple and effective lighting design and a funky soundtrack. Compositionally, it is all very impressive and multi-directional: the thrust is never over-crowded and the dimensions of the Pilch are exercised to the full. Virtues are made of potential vices. What could have been a somewhat clunky recourse to letter reading becomes an excuse to show off the cast’s vocal talents in part song adaptations of the play-text that rival any Oxford acapella group. Following its heroine’s lead, the production turns the ‘bed trick’ into a principle of staging. The rickety object does everything but bow in the physical contortions to which it subjects itself in multi-rolling the play’s entire cast of settings. Entering the play’s turbulent second half, it upends, like us, into a state of chaos and moral topsy-turvydom. When all is notionally righted at the end, it is done with remarkable unease. Awkwardly holding hands, Bertram and Helena stare into a future that has left everyone short-changed of their promised happily ever after.
Though morally troubled and unhappily concluded, the play is not free from laughs. The comic acting is the play’s best acting. Caitlin O’Sullivan gives herself over to the two roles of The Clown and Diane with exciting boldness and abandon. Ben Norbury is also delightful as Parolles. Both actors bring strong movement and presence to the space, playing with, not just at, their audience. The comic parts thrive off this kind of improvisational approach, but it does not mean it is always easy to do. A highlight of the play is the subplot in which Parolles is set on a fake mission behind enemy lines, duped by his fellow soldiers into believing he has been captured by the enemy, and sets about sedulously spilling beans about them all. In a clear and powerful stage image, Norbury is blindfolded and tied to the bed, circulated by his invisible and unidentifiable comrades: the humour of the image and its dramatic irony feel both accessible and effective. These scenes show the strength of the company. Their success is in no small part due to the strong timing of Jennifer Coodier and Emily Hassan’s wonderful facial and gestural expressions.
Consistently good treatment of Shakespeare’s language was a strength of all the actors, who had excellent volume and diction. The soliloquies were handled well and given a sense of intimacy by the actor’s placement alone in the bedroom-like stage space. I was only frustrated that I found some of the major characters remained inscrutable to the end. Given these were characters with whom I was less familiar, and who pursue some very extreme and potentially confusing actions, I felt myself struggling now and again to appreciate the emotional state. First nights are not definitive statements and I am hopeful, having pulled off a successful show, the performances will start to reveal some of this (appropriately termed) problem play’s starker lights and deeper shadows. Of course, the only way to find out is to get yourself down to the Pilch.