All's Well That Ends Well, NT Olivier, London
When the Rain Stops Falling, Almeida, London
Aunt Dan and Lemon, Royal Court Downstairs, London
Childish animations distract from the real magic of the text in Marianne Elliott's multimedia Shakespeare
Sunday 31 May 2009
You might think it was a show for six-years-olds. Behind the turrets of a witchy black castle, cartoon animals keep popping up on the projected backdrop. Eek, a big spider, howling wolves, a blinking owl. This is Scooby-Doo, right? No, it's Shakespeare's challenging problem play, All's Well That Ends Well, staged by the NT's associate director Marianne Elliott. Courtesy of her multimedia design team, it often looks like kidult entertainment, going straight to DVD.
The animations are condescending and unimpressive. They also distract from the seriously magical moment when Michelle Terry's lowly yet aspiring Helena – determined to save the dying King of France (excellent Oliver Ford Davies) – proffers a potion and soothing words which entrance him. Certainly fairy-tale elements are at work in All's Well. Marina Warner's programme note pinpoints the twists Shakespeare applies to folkloric motifs, especially his fusions of good and bad female archetypes. Clare Higgins picks up on that, as the Countess who employs the orphaned Helena. As she questions the young woman – discerning a secret yearning for her aristocratic son, Bertram – Higgins is mercurial, flicking back and forth between wicked queen and fairy godmother with real psychological complexity.
Here is also a socially radical Helena. Looking like a dowdy Victorian housemaid, Terry mournfully alludes to her humble stock. Yet she has forceful assurance and hurdles hierarchical barriers. Having cured the King, she gets to choose her husband from his corralled nobles.
George Rainsford's callow Bertram is strikingly aghast to find himself forced into this arranged marriage. He runs away to the wars, accompanied by a cowardly braggart, Conleth Hill's Parolles. So, there are some admirable actors here, but dull patches. Rainsford might intensify Bertram's arrogance, and Terry's bed trick – trapping him a second time – could be more morally disturbing.
And, again, the design team do not help. Why must Helena and her colluding body double dress up in tarty pussy-cat outfits for a naff silhouetted seduction scene? And Bertram must be blind not to recognise that the massive, blue, glow-in-the-dark ring, which he's given as a token, is his wife's. Stone the crows!
The gently mournful family saga When the Rain Stops Falling holds out the hope that all may still end well, even after eight decades of sorrowful aberrations. This drama by Australia's Andrew Bovell (co-author of Strictly Ballroom) charts the variously intertwined and estranged lives of four generations.
Ranging in time and place from London in 1959 to Alice Springs in 2039, it's a story of troubled couples, tragically lost loved ones and distant parents. Anxieties about child abuse are buried under the surface, although the journey taken by Andrew – the son in the last generation – tentatively points towards redemption, or at least to re-established connections and some understanding of what's past.
Yet the play isn't immediately winning. Richard Hope's initial appearance as the down-at-heel loner, Gabriel York – surrounded by milling strangers with umbrellas – looks choreographically passé, like some mime festival show from the 1980s. When York screams and a fish falls from the sky, it appears we're in for an evening of whimsy and thudding religious symbols. Then Bovell makes his characters tiresomely repeat each other's lines, in different eras.
And yet, by degrees, each of their stories becomes poignant. Structurally, too, Bovell displays a light touch, interweaving past, present and future, so that they all seem to haunt each other. And you only see the whole picture at the close, like a solution found for an elaborate puzzle.
Michael Attenborough's ensemble proves quietly engrossing. Phoebe Nicholls is bruisingly unmaternal as the older Elizabeth: a damaged soul, emotionally frozen over. By contrast, Tom Mison is beautifully tender as her frustrated son, who flees and finds romance in the Australian wilderness with Naomi Bentley's tough but yearning Gabrielle. A slow burn.
Finally, the Royal Court's season dedicated to the American Wallace Shawn has been up and down, to put it mildly. Aunt Dan and Lemon (from 1985) descends swiftly into pointless, self-indulgent rambling.
Dominic Cooke's cast does its best. Jane Horrocks's wide-eyed narrator, the oddly named Lemon (an old nickname) steps back into her childhood. She recalls how her parents' intellectual friend, Lorraine Ashbourne's swish Dan, told her inappropriate bedtime stories: tales of her boho sex life and femme-fatale friend, Mindy. We see Mindy strangling a guy with her stockings.
Between these unpleasant lurid digressions, Aunt Dan launches into endless raving panegyrics about Henry Kissinger using aggression in Vietnam. I guess this fits Cooke's agenda of exposing the dark side of superficial lefties, but what a drag!
A host of actors, with bit parts, skulk in the alcoves of Lemon's attic. Eternally hoping Shawn might remember to bring them back into play, they glance plaintively at those punters who – unable to tolerate the boredom – scramble for the sighing exit doors.
'All's Well That Ends Well' (020-7452 3000) to 11 Jul; 'When the Rain Stops Falling' (020-7359 4404) to 4 Jul; 'Aunt Dan and Lemon' (020-7565 5000) to 27 Jun
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