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All’s Well That Ends Well

Shavian Shakespeare:
All’s Well That Works Well

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010, B–15&16 (front left stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn

This was Shakespeare in full Bernard Shaw mode. Aside from the Victorian setting, this production’s Shavian sensibility came through most in the performance of Paxton Whitehead as Lafew, who was the one-time director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara, Canada. His Lafew was typical of the blunt-but-polished upper-crust English gentleman who provides so much of the humor in Shaw’s plays. In Whitehead’s shadow, Tony Roach’s Bertram came across as the silly lover boy Shaw liked to denigrate (à la Frank Gardner in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which, incidentally, Roach played at STC months before). Meanwhile, Ted van Griethusen, playing All’s Well’s King of France for the third time in his career, was typical of Shaw’s well-intended, but little-bending, tyrants.

All of this enriched Shakespeare’s own full-fleshed, keenly drawn characters and allowed the comedy its full range of play (except that they cut significant portions of Lavatch’s more obtuse jokes). Along with Lafew’s biting asides and cynical jests at Parolles’ expense, there were precious moments in Bertram’s utter surprise at the king ordering him to marry Helena that night; in Diana’s adroitly volleying Bertram’s woos; in the lords’ faux-language interrogation of Parolles; and in the king’s exasperation at Diana’s riddling. Kudos to Miriam Silverman as an earnest Helena, Michael Bakkensen as a peacockian Parolles, Nick DePinto as an energetic Dumaine the Elder, and Natalie Mitchell as a flirty, coy Diana whom Bertram or any man couldn’t resist courting.

Giving the play a Shavian bent wasn’t the only advantage of Michael Kahn’s Victorian staging. All’s Well is at heart a fairy tale, a “once upon a time there was a poor girl who loved a prince” romance. Just as Ancient Greece was the Middle Ages’ fairy tale era, and the Middle Ages was the Renaissance’s fairy tale era, and the Renaissance was the Victorian’s fairy tale era, the Victorian Age is emerging as the 21st century’s fairy tale era. In 1890, war seemed gallant; fashion was full of frills for both men and women; men worked at leisure and women achieved economic security only through their wits and a singular skill. In this setting, we can sympathize with Helena’s plight and her mission to ensnare Bertram, we can accept the bed trick, and we can see how the cad Bertram can be mutually embraced and criticized by his fellows.

Nevertheless, this production still didn’t make sense of Helena’s attraction to Bertram. It also played down the sex revelation—and Bertram’s blissful reaction to it—that the ASC production earlier this year brought to the fore. Rather, this production slightly hinted that Bertram truly loved Helena all along but was sidetracked by Parolles. Then, at the end, Helena appeared in white, glowing under a soft spot like some Hermione come to life, a moment of spiritual magic that brought Bertram to his knees.

As much as I’ve always loved this play and its characters, situations, and incisive lines, this production more than any other gave me a greater appreciation of All’s Well That Ends Well. It is a romantic comedy, nothing more; but it comes between the roustabout romances of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Much Ado and the mystical romances of Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. If it’s a “problem play,” as critics have long labeled it, its primary problem is our understanding why Helena loves Bertram so much and why Bertram so completely falls for Helena in the end. If we just accept that both are so, no problem.

Eric Minton
September 18, 2010

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