Shakespeare does a wheelie

All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Hambleton for Summer Shakespeare
Esplanade Railway Station
March 5-14
Reviewed by Richard Mays

"Exit, pursued by a bear" is one of Shakespeare's sparing (and most famous) stage directions.  However, nowhere in the Folios can be found "Exeunt via miniature railway train" or "Enter, pushing a shopping cart".  Yet, Peter Hambleton's modernist Summer Shakespeare production of All's Well That Ends Well takes such joyful liberties.

Proclaimed "the fastest show on wheels", this saga of a rich brat, his family, associates, army cronies, and the woman who for whatever reason loves him, mates a committed and animated cast with lively invention.  It deploys the Esplanade railway and an assortment of bikes, trikes, skates, trolleys and wheelchairs to convey characters around its various settings in Roussillon, Paris, Marseilles, and a war in Florence.

Helena - played passionately, though perhaps a little shrilly by Catriona Tipene - is a feisty, liberated young woman who having cured the ailing King of France, seeks the hand of Bertram, Count of Roussillon as her reward.  Bertram, a supercharged Sean Sexton, is having none of this.  He sets his new wife a couple of impossible demands - including pregnancy - and departs for the wars without consummating the marriage.

His success as a general in Florence sees the caddish youth in pursuit of Diana Capulet.  There comes news of his wife's death, but what Bertram doesn't realise is that this is part of an elaborate ruse by Helena to meet his challenges and win his love.

The humorous byplay comes from Parolles (an associate of Bertram who proves to be an utter coward) played by an energetic Brendon Kinch; and Lavache the Fool portrayed as a homie by an inspired Hannah Pratt.

In such a large arena, the wordfest script (with its early dating show) could have done with greater editing to more comfortably fit the Summer Shakespeare format.  However, the production certainly has its appealing aspects.  There's the eloquence and presence of Penni Bousfield as Bertram's motorbike-riding gets-all-the-good-costumes mother; Mark Kilsby as Helena's to-be-reckoned-with father; a superbly pitched Meg Andrews as the forthright Diana; Kelly Harris as her exercising mother; Sam Gordon's interpreter - all enhanced by forays into the bleachers, and the well-timed tooting, arrival and departure of the train.

Pray the weather holds, and go see All's Well in its natural habitat with the shickering cicadas and smell of half-time barbecue adding to the texture of this ambitiously complicated and resourceful experience.

The Guardian.  Palmerston North, New Zealand: March 12, 2009.  pg. 25