I had hoped to post reviews of this past weekend’s Canadian theatre outings in time for Canada Day, but I just didn’t get around to it.
Actually, it’s more than just that. We saw three shows this past weekend – All’s Well That Ends Well, The Music Man, and a double-bill of Krapp’s Last Tape and Hughie. I wanted to start with the toughest to review – the Shakespeare – but I have had a great deal of trouble getting my head around this most troublesome play. So, having spent a couple of days flailing about, I’m just going to give it a go and see what happens.
All’s Well That Ends Well is an exceptionally difficult play to like. Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare’s Language described All’s Well as “one of the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays” and quotes George Hunter, editor of the Arden edition, thusly on the language of All’s Well: “The characteristic verse of All’s Well is laboured and complex but not rich . . . The verse is not ‘thin’ in the manner of a weak and uninterested writer, but contorted, ingrown, unfunctional.” And, indeed, I cannot think of a single, oft-quoted line from the play to compare with, say “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin” (from Troilus and Cressida, and usually misconstrued in quotation) or “I will not die to-day for any man’s persuasion” (from Measure for Measure), both written around the same time. (The closest I can come to a quote deserving of fame is: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together” – but I’ve never actually heard anyone quote that.)
Beyond problems of language is the problem Dr. Johnson identified: the loathesome nature of the romantic hero, Bertram. “I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram,” he wrote, “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who married Helen as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.” Many of Shakespeare’s comic heroines – Portia, Rosalind, I could add Juliet though she’s obviously not a comic heroine – choose husbands who are not their equals in wit, but Helen is not an especially witty heroine, and the only other example in Shakespeare I can recall of a match made with a man of such poor character is Hero’s with Claudio – and the Hero-Claudio plot is, ultimately, a sideshow in Much Ado, and nonetheless nearly poisons the comedy. In All’s Well, the entire plot is driven by Helen’s will to possess Bertram against his will, and his manifest unworthiness of such attention is both what makes the play interesting and what makes it very hard to like.
One critic who had no trouble liking the play is G. B. Shaw, who admired Helen precisely for her indomitable will. And I wondered, reflecting on the story, whether Shaw didn’t a point in seeing this as a proto-feminist drama of sorts. Reverse the genders: Helen becomes a low-born man in quest of a high-born maid who scorns him; he performs miraculous feats but still is scorned; finally, he accomplishes the apparently impossible, and wins her heart. That doesn’t seem like an impossible story to like, does it? Perhaps what really troubles us is that she is in quest of him; that he is married against his will; that she has to turn his heart, not he hers.
To test this proposition, I went back to the original Boccaccio, to see how it read. And you know what? It’s a perfectly delightful comic story! Whereas at the end of All’s Well the audience is left quite apprehensive about the prospects for this misbegotten marriage (the king’s words are “all yet seems well”), at the end of Boccaccio’s tale (a translation roughly contemporeneous with Shakespeare can be found here) the reconciliation of the estranged husband and wife is entirely convincing. What’s the difference?
Shakespeare made very few alterations to Boccaccio’s plot; the main addition is the subplot of Parolles the braggart soldier. This subplot, of course, drives down further our estimation of the character of Bertram, as he is the only character in the entire play who does not see Parolles for the worthless character he truly is. But he subtly altered the perspective of the other characters on the main plot as well. In Boccaccio, the King suggests to Juliet (the character whom Shakespeare names Helen) that her reward will be a husband and a dowry; all she asks is the right to choose. In Shakespeare, by contrast, Helen is the one to suggest that marriage would be her reward for curing the king. In Boccaccio, the King is mildly distressed when she chooses Bertrand (Shakespeare’s Bertram) because he is so above her in birth; in Shakespeare, he is delighted to match them. Moreover, Bertram’s mother does not figure in Boccaccio, whereas in Shakespeare she makes it clear from very early in the play that she loves Helen as a daughter and, indeed, would smile upon a match with her son. Finally, Boccaccio gives Bertrand a very good reason to accept Helen at the end: she presents him with twin boys “lively resembling the lookes of their Father, and all the perfect lineaments of his body.” By contrast, Shakespeare’s Helen merely announces that she is with child; the only reason she gives Bertram to love her is his absolute amazement that she was able to trap him so thoroughly.
All of these alterations serve to make the comedy less readily satisfying to the audience. If the King recognized Helen’s audacity in choosing Bertram, and if his mother did not voice her explicit approval, we would see Betram’s rejection as a matter of class prejudice rather than exceptional obstinacy, and we would admire Helen all the more for triumphing over such an obstacle. And if Helen did not arrange for Bertram to be trapped, and threatened with prison on suspicion of her murder, but rather entered as a mother with babes in arms, we would be powerfully conditioned to believe that all had, indeed, ended well. Instead, what echoes in our minds at the end of the play are the words of Parolles: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” – for Bertram is as thoroughly crushed as Parolles is, and while he deserves it just as much if not more, that just doesn’t seem like a good foundation for a relationship.
Why does Shakespeare make these changes? Why did he not turn All’s Well into, well, something more like The Winter’s Tale? That play is certainly not without its bitterness, and we can imagine that the work of reconciliation between husband and wife has only just begun at that play’s end. But at least we know why we care that it should end well. Leontes doesn’t deserve redemption, but for everyone’s sake, including his, we want him to be redeemed. In All’s Well, Shakespeare seems to have deliberately changed the story to make us wish it didn’t end well – and we simply don’t believe it does. Why did he make that choice?
I don’t have an answer to my own question. My wife’s take on the play is that Helen has the psychology of a smart and strong-willed but socially-awkward teenager. She loves the popular rich boy who never gives her the time of day, and fantasizes about how she’ll win him. (What if I had magic powers to cure the king? Surely he’d give me anything I asked for!) But she’s smart enough to see that a forced match of this sort would not lead to love, but can’t let go of her fantasy, and so she exerts herself further to avenge herself, trapping her love more thoroughly than before and leaving truly without escape. That’s persuasive enough to me as an explanation, but it is really a way of restating the question rather than answering it – or, rather, changing the question from why Shakespeare made these choices to how one is supposed to mount such an unsatisfying play successfully?
Apparently one thing you have to do if you want to put the play on is to convince yourself that Helen sees something in Bertram that none of us do, and that all, in fact, will be well. After the show, I was chatting with the actress who played Helen the last time Stratford did All’s Well, in 2002, and she reiterated her opinion that one has to believe this. And, reading the notes of the director on this year’s production, I see that Marti Maraden also believes this. As these are the only two productions of the play I’ve seen, I can’t tell you what a production that believes that all has not ended well would look like. I can tell you that, whatever Maraden thinks about her own production, her Helen (Daniela Vlaskalic) seemed much less inclined towards a happy ending than did Lucy Peacock in 2002. Vlaskalic is demonstrative in her affection towards the Countess, Bertram’s mother, but quite reserved with Bertram; and Jeff Lillico, as Bertram, appears mainly incredibly relieved to be free of the trap he had put himself in – marriage seems a lot better than prison – and hence much more convincing than David Snelgrove was in 2002 in the same scene. So, whether or not as an actress or a director you have to believe that Bertram is worth redeeming, this production leaves the audience free to dissent, which I appreciate.
Vlaskalic is, physically, an excellent choice for Helen. One of the minor problems the play presents is that everyone in the play praises Helen’s beauty, but this beauty appears to move Bertram not at all. I don’t know how to put this politely, but her face is just the sort that might plausibly win praise from well-wishers and scorn from those who dislike her – a generally sweet face marred by a pronounced overbite. Her performance is strong when she is interacting with the other characters, and strongest in her four most crucial scenes: when confronted by the Countess about her affections towards Bertram; when dismissing various eligible bachelors offered by the king as unsuitable (a key scene for establishing her character; only a girl who had never had the power to charm men would so revel in her one opportunity to turn them down); her parting plea for a kiss from Bertram before he leaves her (he thinks forever); and in her final scene, returning from supposed death to claim her husband. But in soliloquy she lost much of her characterization, reciting speeches rather than speaking from her soul. Lillico is also physically perfect – he could have walked out of the new “Brideshead Revisited” film – and his snobbery and self-regard are utterly convicted; and one can see why Helen would fall for him, not only for his beauty but for these very faults (she only prizes him at his own estimation of his worth, after all).
The other major roles are, with one exception, exceptional. As Parolles, Juan Chioran achieves the impossible: he breeds our affection for this utterly worthless character before his unmasking earns our sympathy. We see him instantly for what he is, and yet we want to keep his company. This probably has something to do with the fact that he plays his first scene with Helen tamely; their dialogue is about virginity, and how she should yield hers up at first opportunity, but we do not believe for an instant that he is trying to seduce her – he is plainly as little distinguished in the courts of Venus as on the fields of Mars, and Helen can tell this as well as we can, and so can banter freely with him. It’s a fine choice that pays dividends almost immediately. The other fool of the play, Lavache, is played equally finely by Tom Rooney; he plays him as scabrous, lazy, filthy in body and in speech; and yet he is the only character who refuses to live in the moral world of the play. Returning from Paris after the match with Bertram is first made, he has lost his sexual appetite, and later, as the play gears up towards its conclusion, he ostentatiously takes his leave, as if he could not bear to Bertram wedded, either to Lafew’s daughter, or to his resurrected lawful wife. Lafew is played expertly by Stephen Ouimette, with perfect courtliness and perfect comic timing. And the Countess of Rossillion is played with steel and grace by Martha Henry.
The only major role that is played a bit off is the King of France, played by Brian Dennehy. And I have to qualify that assessment, because he is perfectly comprehensible, vocally and emotionally, and convinces us that he is a man used to command – but not a king. He is surrounded by courtiers, and apparently he cannot be courtly. His performance, unfortunately, distracted me when I needed to be drawn in. He’s a fine actor, and we saw him do excellent work in Krapp’s Last Tape, and I could see him doing fine work in other Shakespearean roles and in a production that was more naturalistic in its style of diction; but that wasn’t this production, and he felt somewhat out of place.
The minor roles, again, were excellent with one exception. The whole band of soldiers in Tuscany performed wonderfully, particularly Ben Carlson, Randy Hughson, and Patrick McManus. Fiona Reid and Michelle Fisk were fine as well as the Widow Capilet and Mariana. But Leah Oster, so excellent as Marian the Librarian in Music Man, was strikingly weak as Diana, never making us believe the character’s age or position, or feel the force of the emotional dilemma her character was putting herself in by participating in the bed trick – never, indeed, making us believe there was a character there at all. We need to see a bond develop between her and Helen – an unlikely bond, as any normal woman in Helen’s position would be consumed with jealousy the love-object of her husband – but there is nothing there to bond with.
But these are minor flaws in a generally excellent production of a difficult play. The set is beautiful (and lush – they really are pulling out all the stops this year; I hope they can afford it), the costumes sharp as they nearly always are at Stratford. The acting was generally very strong, and the directorial conception clear. I can’t say the production convinced me to love it more than I did before, but then again, neither does Helen, and she can work miracles.