Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s 2016 season started with a rather beige Hamlet and now concludes with an intermittently entertaining, intellectually coherent but slightly under-cast All’s Well That Ends Well. It’s been a workaday year for them and though we are still lucky to have a company producing the classics in the repertory style every year, looking ahead it may be time to think about some changes in policy.
Let’s start with the good. All’s Well is a play that rarely gets seen and director Andrew Hilton’s production is the perfect introduction to it, tracking a through line from beginning to end with barely a hint of incidental ornament tacked on to blind us. Parolles, the swaggering knight, is one of the best ‘unknown’ characters in the canon and Paul Currier’s version is a delight; he brings a soft spoken arrogance to a role that is a daring veer away from the usual Flashheart bravado, but it works a charm and allows his final moments as he is reduced to begging in rags a touching pathos.
The performances are generally surer then they were in Hamlet, there are telling contributions from Julia Hill as the Dutchess, Chris Bianchi as the King Of France and Nicky Goldie who contributes another cracking little cameo to follow on from her Hamlet ones. The real MVP of the 2016 company though is Isabella Marshall who after a heart-breaking Ophelia now provides a delightful perky Diana, the virgin that the errant Bertrand (Craig Fuller) falls for on the battle fields and which leads to the convoluted plot of him consummating his marriage unaware to the ever industrious Helena (Eleanor Yates).
The lovers are always a difficult part to get right, Fuller gets the ‘dick’ part of the role: his Bertrand is a self-entitled, arrogant young upstart who can’t get away quickly enough when he is forced to marry what he believes is beneath himself. For us to believe that Helena is not a complete loon in following him overseas to win him round though, there needs to be a sparkle in his eyes, something to convince us that he is worth the effort. Fuller’s version is too cold and so consequently doesn’t seem worth the effort. Yates speaks the verse beautifully and has a warmth that suggests she is batting way below her weight with Bertrand, social status or no.
It cruises along at a little over two and a half hours and ends with a delightful little waltz number. So production wise all fine. Yet throughout issues that I had with the work of Hamlet and in previous seasons kept plaguing me. It’s fine to play free of concept, it may not be to my own taste, but each to their own and there are plenty of people who love the cleanness of storytelling and accessibility of the work being produced by SATTF. Yet the crux of my problem is this. Bristol is a diverse city, it’s one of the great joys of living here and surely the work of one of the premier theatrical companies in the city should represent this. Shakespeare should feel like it is for everyone but I’m not convinced that case has been made with the work this year. There is a white middle class look to the company that once noticed is very difficult to escape from and when they are also being asked to speak from an RP hymnbook as well it’s difficult not to see it as though we’re stuck in a time-warp. BAME diversity should be commonplace, so should actors working in a variety of accents, not just a ‘Shakespearian voice,’ after all even Radio 4, the bastion of middle England has understood this and employed regional variances.
For the company to continue to flourish as we all hope they do moving forward, shakeups may need to occur. It feels like there’s a complacent air around the work, I don’t think it was coincidence that there was a different energy when a guest director (Polina Kalinina) came in and gave something different. Moving forward this seems a sensible policy to keep Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory feeling relevant rather than a relic from another time.