Stage Door Review

All’s Well That Ends Well

Saturday, July 9, 2022

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by William Shakespeare, directed by Scott Wentworth

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

July 7-October 29, 2022

First Lord Dumaine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (Act 4, Scene 3)

The Stratford Festival opened in 1953 with two plays – Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well. The Festival has chosen the same two plays to celebrate the opening of the new Tom Patterson Theatre. While Richard III is the most popular of Shakespeare’s history plays, All’s Well is on of the least popular of Shakespeare’s comedies. The reason for this is that Shakespeare’s title is heavily ironic. The Bard establishes all the elements for what could be a female-centred fairy tale about a young woman who wins her Prince Charming, but then deliberately does not give us a happy ending.

Nowadays we are familiar with the notion of experimental theatre, but we forget that writers have experimented with the theatrical form as long as there has been theatre. Shakespeare, who may be said to have invented the romantic tragedy with Romeo and Juliet (1595), was also interested in variations of the same story. What if Romeo and Juliet were not powerless contemporary teenagers but powerful middle-aged leaders in antiquity? That notion lies behind Antony and Cleopatra (1607). What if Romeo desperately loved a woman who was not worthy of him? That notion lies behind Troilus and Cressida (c.1602). What of Juliet desperately loved a man who was not worthy of her? That notion lies behind All’s Well That End Well (c.1603).

For those unfamiliar with the story, I will cite my summary in my review of Stratford’s production in 2002: “In All’s Well Helena, a poor physician’s daughter, rich in virtue and wisdom, falls in love with Bertram, a young nobleman devoid of both. He has the title of nobility, she its qualities. What is so perplexing is that Helena goes to such great lengths to pursue and win Bertram as a husband even though he spurns her and everyone in the play, including Bertram’s own mother and the King of France, think Bertram too far below her. To compound the problem Shakespeare shows Bertram as immature and untrustworthy right into the play’s final scene”.

In a move that has always been controversial, Shakespeare gives Bertram only two lines to signal his 180º turn from loathing Helena to love, and even these two lines are ambiguous. Helena asks Bertram directly if he will be hers. Instead of replying to Helena, Bertram replies to the King of France saying, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly”. The problem with this reply is that Helena, already Bertram’s wife, has fulfilled all Bertram’s requirements to be loved and this has already been explained to Bertram in lengthy detail. Bertram’s conditional statement looks exactly like he is still trying to wriggle out of his obligation.

How to solve the problem of Bertram and how to make Helena’s unwavering pursuit of him not look foolish are the central difficulties of the play. Stratford’s production of the play in 2002 emphasized the sincerity of Bertram’s repentance. Its production in 2008, however, embraced the play’s logic and portrayed the conclusion as an unhappy ending. I happened to see but not review Marianne Elliott’s now-famous production for the National Theatre in London in 2009 where she emphasized the play’s fairy-tale qualities. She treated the ending as if it were going to be happy. Then as Simon Edge of the Daily Express put it, “But one final mood-swing – a look of frozen horror on Terry and Rainsford’s [Helena and Bertram’s] faces – leaves us with the unsettling feeling that all may not have ended well after all”.

Scott Wentworth, director of the current Stratford production, decides simply not to confront the play’s difficulties and in so doing makes the ending even more unsatisfying than Shakespeare’s deliberately unhappy ending. In Shakespeare when Helena is the one who cures the King of France of his disease, the one recompense she asked for is Bertram’s hand in marriage. When he demurs, the King forces Bertram to marry Helena. Rather than lie with her after marriage, Bertram goes off to the wars in Italy. Helena begs at least a kiss from him before he leaves, but there is no indication that Bertram does even that.

Wentworth, however, not only has the two kiss but turns in into a major event. The long, surprisingly passionate kiss and Bertram’s look back at Helena suggests that he has begun to reassess her merits, even if they are only physical. Wentworth uses this kiss to presage the ending. After Bertram tells lie after lie about how he came to have the ring that the King gave Helena, everyone is so glad to see Helena alive after rumours of her death that Helena and Bertram tearfully embrace and all does end well. The only pall on this happiness is when the King briefly clutches his chest as if his old disease had made a sudden return. This is not in the text and transferring the un-well-ness in the ending from Bertram to the King makes no sense.

Unlike Richard Monette’s 2002 production, Wentworth does not emphasize the parallels between Bertram and his follower Parolles. The parallel is important because as Parolles’ name suggests, he is all words. Worse than that, both Bertram and Parolles regard words as meaningless. Words do not make promises binding and words do not have to convey the truth. The elaborate showing up of Parolles as a vain, lying egotist immediately precedes the elaborate showing up of Bertram as the same thing. Yet, whereas Shakespeare allows Parolles a speech showing insight into his true nature, he gives Bertram none which means we really have no proof that Bertram understands he did wrong by Helena much less understands his own flawed nature.

Wentworth’s production is filled with fine performances with one notable exception. His Helena is Jessica B. Hill, who grows from a shy young ward of the Countess of Rossillion into a strong woman ever more confident of her ability and worth. Hill speaks Shakespeare’s verse with a becoming naturalness, only occasionally speaking too quickly when Helena becomes excited. The one flaw in her performance is really Wentworth’s. When Helena appears as a doctor to the King of France, Wentworth has her throw her cloak on the King’s bed and then lie on the bed with him (!) which follows no known etiquette and does not fit Helena’s personality as shown either in the text or in Wentworth’s previous or subsequent direction of the character.

The play’s inherent Bertram problem is made worse by miscasting. Jordin Hall plays Bertram as dull and sullen though the vast majority of the play. His manner of speech and body language are expressionless throughout. This behaviour makes it more difficult than usual to understand what Helena can see in Bertram. Other Bertrams I have seen have at least shown some form of grace or spark that Helena could mistake for charm, but Hall gives his Bertram nothing. In fact, he showed more personality as the First Executioner in this year’s Richard III than he does here.

In contrast, Seana McKenna gives a warm, compassionate performance as the Countess of Rossillion, one of the touchstones of civility in the play. Ben Carlson, though too young for a role usually given to Prospero-aged actors, gives a wonderful account of the King of France, clearly distinguishing the despairing King during his illness from the reinvigorated King after his cure. Both McKenna and Carlson are pleasures to hear because they speak the complex, beautiful verse Shakespeare has given them with such clarity and insight. The same can be said of Wayne Best as Lafew, a lord at Rossillion, who acts as a witty, rational commentator on the action.

Rylan Wilkie and André Sills play the two clowns of the play – Parolles and Levatch. Wilkie’s Parolles is the personification of vanity, which Wentworth underlines by having him appear during his first scene holding a mirror. Wilkie perfectly captures Parolles comic combination of cowardice and overweening self-regard. Especially funny is nervous aura of Wilkie’s Parolles that he may be found out at any moment. The dark side of this comedy is Parolles’ willingness to betray his country to save his life when made to believe it is threatened. Yet, when his countrymen expose Parolles’ faithlessness, Wilkie shows a Parolles’ devastated by his humiliation and humbled by his insight into his folly.

Sills’s Levatch is like a coarser version of Olivia’s fool Feste in Twelfth Night. In both cases the fool counters a woman’s state of mourning with ribaldry. Wentworth allows Sills to go perhaps too far since no countess would allow an underling to kiss her once let alone on numerous occasions.

In other roles Michael Blake and Jon de Leon as the Dumaine brothers are fine models of moral uprightness with a taste for mischief. Both speak Shakespeare with exemplary clarity. It is a pleasure to see Irene Poole in a fully comic role for a chance, here as the First Soldier who functions as a translator for the language that she and the First Lord Dumaine use with the captured Parolles. Kim Horsman is a canny Widow of Florence and Allison Edwards-Crewe gives a fine account of Diana, the Widow’s virtuous daughter, who overcomes her scruples to entrap a knave like Bertram.

Michelle Bohn’s set consists entirely of twelve chairs, set six opposite six, the length of the Tom Patterson stage creating a sense of formality against which the various violations against good taste and ethics play out. The handsome costumes place the action during World War I, when an old world was falling into chaos. Bohn creates an especially amusing costume for Parolles, making him into a over-bemedalled hussar with a prominent sash.

Though this is the third time Stratford has staged All’s Well so far this century, it has been 14 years since the work appeared on the playbill. It may be a comedy with an unhappy ending but that ending is so contrary to expectation that Shakespeare seems to wish the audience to question the rigidity of dramatic genres themselves. This is a project he continues in other difficult plays like The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and all five romances as if to say that real life cannot be contained in strictly compartmentalized forms. For that reason, too, All’s Well should be staged will its unconventional ending and its unloveable Prince Charming. The First Lord Dumaine sums up the play’s aesthetic when he says, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jessica B. Hill as Helen with Daniel Krmpotic, Jonathan Mason, Chanakya Mukherjee and Christo Graham; Ben Carlson as the King of France, © 2022 Jordy Clarke; Jordan Hall as Bertram and the company; Seana McKenna as the Countess of Rossillion, © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.