June 10, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
All’s Well That Ends Well @ The National Theatre (Olivier)
The label of “problem play” has long been regarded as an unhelpful and negatively loaded description for those plays of Shakespeare’s which fit uncomfortably into neat genres, yet in the case of All’s Well That Ends Well, the label has stuck. Marianne Elliott’s new production for the National Theatre, however, made a virtue of the production’s problems by emphasising the play’s fairytale characteristics; after all, this is a story of trial and adversity, of journeys and miracle cures, of love transcending class boundaries and ultimate happy endings. In emphasising these facets of the play, Elliott’s production took one of Shakespeare’s least loved plays and turned it into a magical, fresh folk tale.
The set acted as an immediate declaration of the production’s intentions. Silhouettes of rickety gothic towers ascended towards the heavens, where a full moon and stormy clouds shone over a night sky covered in cobwebs, along which projected spiders scuttled. Narrow walkways snaked across jagged mountains, owls hooted and wolves howled. This black and white landscape acted as backdrop to the Rossillion home, a bleak and colourless household overwhelmed by mourning. Even on the move to the French court, only a long red carpet broke the stark colour scheme, and it was not until the action moved to Florence that the palette substantially changed. The effect was to set the events of the first act in a half-real, half-fictional world that allowed for magic and used clear intertextual references to shape its characters; Helena, for example, donned a red hooded travelling cloak that re-cast her as Red Riding Hood, with the wolves howling as she ended the first act heading off alone into the mountains as she abandoned France.
As an important part of the fairytale setting, Elliott laid particular emphasis on the play’s concern with class. Michelle Terry’s Helena was little more than a servant in the Rossillion household, indistinguishable at first from the other waiting women. Her only real friendship, surprisingly, was with Conleth Hill’s Parolles, with whom she shared a bond that saw the two exchanging bawdy jokes and laughing before Parolles left to accompany Bertram to Paris. By contrast, Helena was barely noticed by Bertram, he acknowledging her only in his final words before leaving. Establishing this early connection between Parolles and Helena allowed for a richer understanding of the motivations of both; she felt the class divide was unbridgeable, necessitating her convoluted schemes; while Parolles adopted an affected accent and ebullient manner in order to compensate for his own insecurity. Difficulties of class were further evoked through Rynaldo’s disgust at the Countess and Lavatch flirting openly in her chambers
Terry was a solid and likeable Helena, permanently downcast but made sympathetic by her determination to improve her standing. Occasionally her despair broke out, such as in a lonely scream before taking the decision to leave France. Her sadness was often extremely touching, notably in the French court when asked to choose her husband. The four presented to her – including a bookish chemist, an arrogant sportsman and a simpleton who gave her flowers – were eminently unsuitable and yet still disdainful of her, while Bertram laughed openly at the suggestion that he might marry her. In the fairytale context, the attitudes and prejudice she was forced to endure became obstacles to be overcome, allowing her to demonstrate her indomitability of spirit. As a heroine, Terry’s Helena was admirable for her resilience rather than her wit, and the dark, cold world into which Elliott plunged her emphasised this strength.
George Rainsford’s Bertram opened the production, childishly swinging a sword as he fought invisible enemies. His rudeness and inconsiderate nature were chalked down to age and social inexperience, rendering him somewhat more sympathetic than usual as a character. He was honest in saying what he did and did not want, and sullen at the grown-up world’s repeated refusal to allow him to follow his own path, throwing himself sulkily onto a couch as his fellows went off to war. The forced marriage in which he found himself was clearly unwelcome, and we watched in silhouette as he appeared waving at off-stage crowds with Helena before downing a glass of champagne in an attempt to console himself.
Bertram was thus one of the very few characters apparently immune to Helena’s magic. While convincing the King of her ability to cure him, the court dropped away into shadow and the two were bathed in coloured light, the mystical nature of her father’s arts being invoked in the persuasion as well as in the cure. Similarly, when returning to public view after her reported death, her entrance was accompanied by heavenly music and petals falling from the sky across the court. Helena was visually linked, therefore, to the supernatural and elemental, and it was in these moments where she appeared most confident. When dealing with the real world, however, she was far less so. The lead-up to the bed trick was staged, interspersed with 4.3 as the two Lords Dumaine spoke of the wars and the Count. Diana and Helena hung a white sheet across one side of the stage, and then changed into sexy kitten costumes, in which Helena was extremely awkward. As Diana blindfolded Bertram, Helena stepped forward and took her place, uncomfortable at reconciling her own tender feelings towards her husband with the kinky games Bertram was expecting. The lights went down, thus, on a troubled moment that problematised the moment of duplicitous seduction. These problems remained with the couple until the end; as a photographer took shots of various courtly groupings, Helena and Bertram shared uncomfortable and not entirely happy glances. Helena had orchestrated her fairytale ending, but married life would begin on a note of discord.
The colours of Florence provided a marked contrast to France. Janet Henfrey’s Widow was hostess of a bar, with neon signs and fairy lights giving the region a liveliness and colour previously lacking. The ladies of Florence, too, were dressed in Mediterranean frocks and chatted with a liveliness that contrasted nicely with the quiet Helena’s subdued arrival. Into this bar scene came the Florentine army in slow motion; drinking, celebrating, holding Bertram up on their shoulders and carrying off one of the young girls. This scene, introducing the second half of the play, set up a world more grounded in reality, forcing Helena to rely on more sordid tricks to achieve her ends, and allowing the focus to shift slightly towards the Parolles subplot. Hill was enormously entertaining as the cowardly soldier, although the background of class insecurity rendered his motives more understandable. Alone in 4.1, he muttered recriminations to himself for offering to retrieve the drum and ran at the sounds of hooting and howling; but yet, his seeming inability to control his own need for acceptance was at the same time touching.
The tricks played on Parolles were simply and effectively staged, the victim being sat downstage on a bench and blindfolded. However, the company brought out some nice individual moments, such as the Interpreter’s attempts to mimic a Russian accent after Parolles’ assertion that he had been caught by Muscovites, and the Brothers Dumaine attempting to restrain each other as the unknowing Parolles insulted each of them. While the increasingly panicked confessions of the blindfolded captive were amusing, however, the most effective part of the scene came after the blindfold was removed and his captors had left the stage. Left alone, Parolles reflected partly in shame on what had happened, but quickly shrugged it off. His cowardice exposed, he embraced the freedom of being who he truly was, abandoning his social ambitions. In his subsequent appearances, therefore, he was bedraggled and stinking, but all the happier for it. His final acceptance of a post under Lafew fed into this; where Parolles had been extremely awkward in the early exchanges of banter with Lafew, unable to pose effective counter-arguments, here both men eagerly accepted a genial relationship more fitting with their respective social stations. While the reinforcement of archaic class types is problematic, the neat moral which the production found in Parolles’ tale was a simple one of being happy with one’s own lot; a fitting reading for a fairytale production.
Brendan O’Hea’s excellent Lavatch was a severe clown, more a confidante for the Countess than an entertainer. His close relationship to the women of the house was repeatedly referenced, whether lounging on a chair with the Countess or standing shocked beside Helena as she received the news of Bertram’s departure. Clare Higgins, playing the Countess, was a strong yet emotional figure, increasingly conflicted between love for her son and digust at his behaviour. Yet she was an inherently playful figure, both with Lavatch and with Helena, who she particularly relished teasing as she drew from her a confession of love for Bertram. In this, she was paralleled by Oliver Ford Davies’ King of France, a similarly joking figure who used humour to ignore the pain of his illness. The relief brought to him by Helena, physically realised quickly as the two re-entered dancing after his cure, allowed the King to become a more active and emotionally involved character, particularly in the final scene as he grew increasingly frustrated with Diana’s enigmatic answers. Nonetheless, the King retained his humour and his final promise of a husband for Diana drew cries of despair from the courtiers, a response he had clearly hoped for. This final clash of playful comedy with the question mark over Helena and Bertram’s future encapsulated the production perfectly: a fairytale that fused magical comedy with the grounded complexities of real life. Elliott’s production was a triumph, and a powerful call for more frequent revival of a neglected play.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue .