One of the more curious of Shakespeare plays, All’s Well That Ends Well never seems to have sat comfortably with its audience. Even its title can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s playful jokes; riffing, as it does, on the fairy-tale narrative of ‘happily ever after’ despite those watching being left with serious question marks over the likelihood of the future joy to be shared between Helena and Bertram.
At its core All’s Well That Ends Well combines a number of fairy-tale tropes and applies them to the real-world. The healing of the king by someone of lower birth who is granted what their heart desires forms the play-logic that allows Helena, a ward of the Countess of Rossillion, to be granted the hand of Bertram, the Countess’ son.
In the world of fairy-tale this would be the ideal marriage and Bertram, the prince, would realise that he loved the woman of lower-birth all along. However by placing the plot in a world where people are not shaped by archetypes, we see Bertram as little more than an indulged trustifarian who runs at the first sight of emotional commitment, who is used to bending the world to his whims and who believes honour is for the battlefield not the bedroom.
This may explain modern concerns with the play; that the resourceful, intelligent and determined Helena would seemingly humiliate herself and traipse across Europe for a man who clearly does not lover her.
It is on this point that Nancy Meckler’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company comes into its own and in doing so helps to rehabilitate a play that, for its problems, contains, in Parolles, a comic creation of rare intelligence alongside two strong female roles that are pillars of wisdom and virtue.
Meckler’s production updates the plot to the early twentieth century and through this framing device we see the character dynamics in a whole new light. The fairy-tale plotting remains but within a world that is realistic to us.
The background is Europe at war and in Helena we feel any one of the millions of women who stepped into the roles left by men. Helena’s curing of the King of France is a reminder of the importance of women to the war effort and how they carried out job that before the War they would never have been allowed to do.
Bertram’s treatment of Helena and his dismissive rejection of the King’s statement that ‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up’ [II.iii] reflects the wider disintegrating status of hereditary gentry. Bertram has truly never considered Helena within the context of a potential wife despite living in close proximity at court.
There is also a significant amount of comedic irony to a modern audience in his plea that ‘In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ [II.iii]; it is clear that once the shoe is on the other foot, the male ego struggles with the concept of entering what is effectively a shotgun wedding.
The period setting is an excellent fit for the nature of the text. The arrival of Bertram and the troops brings forth a scene not unlike the arrival of American GIs in the Pacific. We see the women line-up to welcome the troops in a mixture of fear and lust; they recognise the danger they bring to their virtue but also acknowledge the opportunities that surround them.
One of the most striking elements brought to the play is Jonathan Slinger’s playing of Parolles as a closeted gay man. It is one of those revelatory moments when you realise that it is possible to bring something new to Shakespeare if you place it in the right context. Whilst clearly not written with this in mind, there are many elements that allow the transition to make dramatic sense.
The period setting and the focus on gender roles gives Meckler and the cast room to explore new avenues. Parolles is played as a Sandhurst-type, an Officer in name but not in deed, another scion of the landed gentry placed into the army because that is what one does with additional male heirs.
Slinger’s Parolles is a parody of a leader, preening in his costume and more sound than fury in the banging of his drum. It is a factor noted by Lord Lafeu, who cuts him down to size but eventually offers his redemption once Parolles is stripped of his protective uniform and comes to him in his true form. By the end of the play there is also a symbolic renaming of Parolles as ‘Tom Drum’ and in this we can see Parolles’ life begin afresh.
In the comic scene with Helena on virginity and cowardice, it is Parolles that does most of the speaking and forms an obsessional interest in the word ‘virgin’, repeating it or variations seven times in ten lines. It is only once that Helena regains her own footing and challenges Parolles on his own cowardice, which in this production has a secondary layer as it is as much about his own ‘virginity’ as it is about his prowess in battle.
The sense of his sexuality as subtext is reinforced during Parolles’ soliloquy and the subsequent ‘interrogation’ scene. Watching Parolles’ prattle it is remarked that ‘Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?’[IV.I], which can be clearly understood to have a dual meaning in this context and is reinforced later by the emphasis placed on Parolles’ ‘Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live’ [IV.iii]. To a modern audience it is clear that we are watching someone wrestling with the truth about himself and a reflexive acknowledgment of the need to face his own nature.
Parolles is brought alive through Slinger truly inhabiting the character. Slinger has the capacity, shared by many of the great Shakespearean actors to fall on one or two traits and round them into a fully developed character. Slinger has settled on a military moustaches and a laugh accompanying his dialogue that is part-sneer, part-nervousness. In the classic mode of a bully who does so because they have something of their own they wish not to be exposed, Slinger’s Parolles is happy to dish out acerbic remarks but is constantly on the defensive if someone returns the barb.
Alls Well That Ends Well returns to one of the crueller and more distasteful elements of Shakespeare, where he produces scenes that take a man unsure of his footing in the world and sees him undone and humiliated by his aristocratic peers. Their vanity is the ultimate reason for their downfall but they are then left to suffer the worst excesses of Shakespeare’s vituperative tongue.
In Henry IV Part I, the treatment of Falstaff following the highway robbery by Hal and his followers is a malicious prank played by someone who is fully aware they are above comeback. Twelfth Night’s Malvolio is terribly humiliated for little more than telling those of a higher class that they should be quiet in the evening.
Parolles suffers a similar fate in the interrogation scene but again the virtues of updating the text allows this to have a much greater weight than perhaps Shakespeare intended. The audience is aware of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and so to see a man blindfolded and threatened with the cruellest of punishments is not perhaps the amusing scenario that it might otherwise have been and makes the desperate lying and cowardice by Parolles far more understandable.
It is also interest to witness the humiliation heaped upon Parolles, ending in rags and begging for charity, with the actions of Bertram in the final scene. Initially there is no happy reunion with Helena; he continually proclaims his intent that he never was going to marry Diana and that the ring cannot be the same ring. He lies to both the Countess and the King of France, and only accepts Helena after all his preconditions have been proved to have occurred.
It is hardly a gracious, and certainly not a noble, set of actions but suffers no real consequence. Bertram, as he must given the fairy-tale plotting, ends married to Helena; that seemingly is his punishment but the nature of fairy-tales precludes unhappiness.
The play looks fantastic on a sparse set. It opens with flash-freezes that evoke a Lowry-esque backdrop that is cemented by the industrial brick setting of the theatre. The fictional State of Rossillion, with their progressive Countess, evokes the idea of a world where traditional social status is in a state of flux and a low-born woman really could succeed.
Alex Waldmann as Bertram displays excellent comic timing to ensure that the wayward son stays just on the right side of hateful. The audience must despair and even dislike Bertram but must also be always be offered the potential to believe in his redemption and the eventually love for Helena. Waldmann plays the part to a tee; the kind of heir whom has always been indulged and who cannot quite believe that he cannot get out of a situation with a cheeky smile.
In Joanna Horton’s portrayal we see a very modern Helena; a curious blend of sly cunning and virtuous endeavour, and one that points to a character who must be seen as one the strongest women in Shakespeare. It may be distasteful to see her fall so heavily for Bertram but one must the resourcefulness with which she ensnares him.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, under Nancy Meckler’s direction, has done a fine job in helping to bring a difficult play to a modern audience. It demonstrates once again that if one approaches Shakespeare with a clear and well-articulated vision then he remains one of the most adaptable of playwrights.
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