My first time seeing All’s Well That Ends Well! Good night for it – the rain held off, and we got the best seats we’d ever had (in the “tall chair” section, right up against the edge of the VIP section, who all have low chairs).
It’s an amusing little play, kind of all over the map. They open with a huge funeral scene looking like something straight out of New Orleans the way everybody was costumed. Bertram has flung himself across the coffin of his father, and is eventually the last to leave the service as people come and remove the chairs around him. It’s a nice idea, but … at any point in the rest of the play is there any mention of his relationship to his father? At all? Other than “This guy’s dead,” what is the purpose of that extended scene?
Let me see how I do with the plot, for those that don’t know it: Bertram’s father has just died. He is taken in as a ward by the King of France. Bertram’s mother, the Countess, has a ward of her own, Helena, whose father was a famous doctor. Helena loves Bertram. (When the Countess says “Think of me like a mother,” thus making Bertram her brother, Helena’s all, “Ewww, no, can’t do that. That’s nasty.” So they have a bit of a go-round on whether she can be a mother-in-law instead.)
Anyway, the King of France is deathly ill, and convinced that nobody can cure him – if only the famous Doctor so-and-so (Helena’s father), was still alive! Sure enough Helena comes and says, “I have my father’s medicine, I can cure you.” She offers a deal that if she cures the king, she can marry anyone in his kingdom. Done and done – she cures him, then promptly picks Bertram.
It’s at this point that we discover that Bertram is a pig. He doesn’t think she’s good enough for him, being just the daughter of a doctor. I do love a good scene in Shakespeare where somebody pisses off a king, because it never ends well (hello, Cordelia?) The King at first gently hints to Bertram, “You know what she did for me, yes? She cured me, you know that, right?” and then more sternly, “It is only her title you don’t like – and I can change that.” But Bertram’s having none of it, and has no interest in marrying Helena.
For the briefest moment here I felt sympathy for Bertram, for one simple reason – if he really has grown up in the same house as this girl, and his mother really does think of her like a daughter, then maybe he sees her as a sister? In which case, even a king saying “Marry your sister!” would cause you to disagree with the command.
Anyway, Bertram grudgingly agrees to marry Helena, but is then promptly convinced by his cowardly friend Parolles to run away and join the army (an honor that was previously denied him). And so he does, sending home a note to his mother and “wife” that says, “As long as a wife is in France, there’s nothing for me there. It’s a big world and I’ll keep as much distance as I can.” He also writes (paraphrased), “You never got a ring or a baby from me, so until you have those things, we’re not married.”
What comes out of Helena next, surprisingly, is a speech that sounds like something from Les Miserables where she blames herself for all of this, and that if he dies in battle, it will be all her fault. I liked it, I thought it was very telling about the character, but like many things it seemed to come out of nowhere, and then never any followup.
The plot gets a little twisty here and I can’t say I followed it all entirely. Helena says that she’s going on a pilgrimage – and somehow rumor circulates that she’s died. I don’t know where that part came in. So Bertram either has a wife, or…has a wife who has died? When he starts talking up the ladies of town (Diana in particular) I got lost. If they know he is married (they do), then yeah, he’s a rat for cheating on his wife. But if everybody thinks that his wife is dead, is he still a bad guy?
Helena, it turns out, has arrived in town and has spoken to Diana and her mother about her history with Bertram. Specifically about Bertram’s “ring and baby” thing, which she has taken as a challenge. They come up with the famous “bed trick” where Bertram thinks he’s going with Diana (to whom he has given his ring), only it is Helena (pretty sure that’s known as “rape” these days). Badda boom badda bing, everything works out in the end – Helena’s pregnant with Bertram’s child, she managed to get his ring from him, so he says “Ok, fine I’ll marry you.”
I don’t know if it was the production or the source material, but most of the comedy seemed to fall flat. Poor clown Lavatch got nothing from the audience at all. Parolles, played by the same guy who did Bottom for Commonwealth a few years ago, felt like he was really trying to force something out of the material that wasn’t there. The funniest bits came from the Countess, who as the mother character could get an easy laugh of of the slightest eye roll or arched eyebrow, and the King. The funniest line of the night came in the final scene when it is discovered that Diana is wearing a ring that belonged to Helena, given to her by the king. He is demanding to know where she got it:
Thou hast spoken all already, unless thou canst say
they are married: but thou art too fine in thy
evidence; therefore stand aside.
This ring, you say, was yours?
Ay, my good lord.
Where did you buy it? or who gave it you?
It was not given me, nor I did not buy it.
Who lent it you?
It was not lent me neither.
Where did you find it, then?
I found it not.
If it were yours by none of all these ways,
How could you give it him?
I never gave it him.
This woman’s an easy glove, my lord; she goes off
and on at pleasure.
This ring was mine; I gave it his first wife.
It might be yours or hers, for aught I know.
Take her away; I do not like her now;
That last “I do not like her now” was delivered with just the right comic timing, it had me in stitches.
The production, as always, was quite nice. The costumes were very impressive, from the initial funeral scene to all the hospital attendants to the king (dressed in pure white, top to toe). All the military men were in uniform. The stage – with this cool rotating ring in the middle of it – was equally the king’s palace, the countess’s living room, a tent, a battle ground. A couple times it even seemed to pass as just some generic street corner.
Was it me or does this play in particular have a crazy amount of back and forth in it? We see the countess – we see the king – we see the countess – we see the king. You send a letter here, I send a letter back here… Once upon a time here on the blog we talked about “split screening” a play, and sometimes I wondered if this would make a good candidate. What were they sending these letters by, rocket ship? They kept getting where they needed to go awfully quickly.
As always, glad I got to go, and glad I got to add this play to my list of seen-its. Not one of my favorites. I can’t really think of anything where I’d point to a particular scene as an example of something. (Compare The Comedy of Errors, for example, where I’ve at times used Dromio of Syracuse’s description of his fat new wife as one of Shakespeare’s funniest scenes.) When one play is being performed and I catch myself thinking, “I wonder what they’re going to do next year?” I guess that’s telling enough. I don’t remember thinking that when I was watching their Othello.