Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018
All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.
I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.
The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.
There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.
A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.
This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.
Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production
Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.
In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”