All’s Well That Ends Well

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Comments

10 comments. Add your own »

  1. Callum McGinloch says:

    I agree that ultimately Terry’s portrayal does not add-up. Its not enough that Bertram is very likeable, the complex sexual politics are not addressed. I’m hoping Lucinda Coxon will mine this fascinating relationship deeper in her modern companion piece The Eternal Not.

  2. Rob Rynaldo says:

    I’m not sure that Rainsford’s boyish portrayal of Betram was all that just. What on earth would Helena see in such a childlike man to justify her attempts to win him over? I find it hard to imagine how a character as bright as Helena would be so utterly devoted to such a wimp, regardless of sexual desire. For me, there is a deep psychological flaw in his portrayal.

  3. Anna Buckler says:

    Why is it just to demand more form the National? I am not all that sure they did ‘solve’ All’s Well…

    While beautiful to look at, Smith’s design and the looming fairytale concept made the production a little over stylised in its attempt at ‘solving’ things.

    Married with the mismatched casting of Helena and Bertrum (though both fine actors, not a convincing love match), the play seemed all the more problematic. No amount of fairytale sugar coating can overcome Shakespeare’s annoying sexual politics and characters.

  4. Nichola MacEvilly says:

    “The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place’

    What, indeed, does Helena see in Bertram?

    There is much to detest in Bertram as a character not to mention the cruelty he bestows upon his newly betrothed. However, something Elliott has unquestionably uncovered is that Bertram is a young man, fresh to the world. Helena does not chastise his indolence rather adores his youthfulness, vitally and energy. Qualities Rainsford exudes. Yes, Terry’s mature Helena contrasts greatly with Rainsford’s ‘spoiled’ Bertram but, isn’t that the Bard’s point?

    If Elliott’s production does anything (and I agree with your enjoyment of the fairytale concept) it expertly draws on Bertram’s youth. His imaginary sword fighting establishes a young man existing between reality and fantasy. A playful character who, when betrothed to a woman he did not naturally come to love, unsurprisingly feels angry and resentful. His disdain for Helena is unlikely entirely due to her rank and unattractiveness, but more a rebellion against the authority responsible for the marriage he prematurely finds himself a part of.

    We should ultimately question what Bertram comes to see in Helena? Thankfully, Shakespeare neatly answers that question for us. Your question, what does Helena see in Bertram, is answered for us by Elliott. His youth. The fact that Helena acknowledges this quality before anyone else further conveys her maternal intuitiveness.

  5. Niamh says:

    It’s not angels that are missing – it’s fairy godmothers! Elliott made a wise, if not unprecedented, choice in foregrounding the fairytale aspect of the play. However, she could have gone further with it for better effect. I think she could have worked harder to set up a world where fairytale logic rules supreme and Bertram’s out of sync with this world and its beliefs. Then we would see him develop to become part of the fairytale so that we can believe that there’s a possibility of living happily ever after. This may sidestep psychological flaws and questionable sexual politics but I’m not sure that a production of this play could ever adequately raise and address those issues.

  6. When I say this production ’solved’ All’s Well, here’s what I mean: I wasn’t familiar with the play, so I scanned the Wikipedia article beforehand to arm myself, and that told me it was considered a problem play, largely because of Bertram’s emotional flip-flop on the final curtain, which tends to cause issues with actors who like their psychological realism and through-lines. But when I came to watch the play, Bertram’s motivation seemed to make perfect sense, and if I hadn’t swotted up beforehand I would never have guessed the play was considered problematic.

    As for what Helena sees in Bertram … perhaps Elliott subscribes to the view that women can’t resist a cad, or that love is blind. As Macguffins go it’s clunky and poorly justified, but I see clunkier in every Hollywood blockbuster, and at least this one drives an enjoyable story.

    And it’s just to demand more from a production at the National because (correct me if I’m wrong) it’s our biggest, loudest, best equipped subsidised venue. If the National can’t serve up the best in production quality, talent and (especially in the Olivier) pizazz, then our money isn’t being well spent. Smaller, less well funded venues often produce higher quality work because financial restrictions force them to lose every gram of flab, but the National can, in theory, be the model of what British theatre can achieve when it’s allowed to escape the underfunded make-do-and-mend model the majority have to put up with.

  7. Anja Fee says:

    Yes, Elliott’s production of All’s Well certainly makes the accusations of ‘problem play’ seem redundant. However, that is not to say that the characters and plot are allowed to be entirely straightforward either. Bertram’s final unconvincing acceptance of Helena is neither ‘natural’ or ‘grateful’. Rather, the inverse fairytale tones of the piece are most evident when the success of Helena in her tasks and trickery forces Bertram into a worn down submission, not the convenient reversal of sentiment that you talk about. Interestingly, one of the key changes made by Shakespeare in adapting All’s Well from its source work (Boccaccio) was to weaken the believability of Bertram’s change of heart. In this way the saccharine moments of Elliot’s production prove to be the perfect antithesis to the play’s darker, more enigmatic moments. Although, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the winking owl was one cute animal too far…!

  8. Luke Robson says:

    ‘What does Helena see in Bertram?’ you ask! I think its absolutley believable that Helena would fall for such a cad. She’s a frumpy little thing with no obvious prospects, likely so be destined to spinsterhood. Bertram on the other hand is a cocky rock hunk/ underwear model. People often fancy people they are never likely to be with- think of all the teenage girls with John Barrowman or Will Young posters for instance. What the wonderful world of theatre allows is that the unlikely becomes likely. For me the contrast in Helena and Bertram is a great strength to this production, it makes Helena’s decissions surprising and her foxy actions all the more shocking.

    I also dont agree to the mention of Bertram ‘turning on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending’. Bertram succums to Helena, he is defeated. Through the course of the play Bertram progresses from childish war games in the opening scene to the arogance of youth and the hormone fuelled action of adolecence ending in the mature acceptance of his responsibility to the pregnant Helena.

    We shall agree to disagree on the sets and vignettes,I supose they are the theatrical equivalent of marmite. Personally I love them especialy the petals, not sacharine but fairytale elegance. The winking owl was a bit too far, but it was nice to see a return of the woodland creatures from the 90’s cbbc cartoon ‘The Animals of Farthing Wood’. Could anyone spot moley?

  9. Georgina Lansbury says:

    Sleeping Beauty’s castle, a forlorn and decaying backdrop and the start of Marianne Elliott’s production of All Well’s That Ends Well. The play begins in winter and ends in a shower of spring-like blossom and the promise of new life contained in the person of Helena.

    Visually beautiful as this is, as ‘solved’ as this play might appear, the ambiguities are lodged in the text and they still stand, expressed in Elliott’s thoughtful response to this much maligned ‘problem’ play. Neither Bertram or Helena can be said to appear completely, truly, unthinkingly happy at the end: it is those around them who weep and dance for joy. The couple in the middle give glancing looks at each other, stunned and slightly appalled as Bertram finally capitulates (although he does now know what Helena is like in bed – and it certainly made him happy at the time) and she has just rescued him from a marriage with a plain girl who drags a great ball of wool behind her like a puppy.

    Problem plays are so called because they do not fit neatly under any of the labels given to Shakespeare’s plays: All’s Well has comic moments and romantic ones and tragic ones, and Elliott allows all of these components to be expressed, sometimes all at once. The bed trick is shown on stage with Diana and Helena dressed as amorous kittens, (Diana, who remains a virgin in red, and Helena, who does not, in bridal white). As Bertram enthusiastically enters the harem-like tent of sheets where Diana is inside, posed like a cat with her tail in the air, waiting for him, Helena watches him, painfully aware as we find out later, that she knows his desire is not for her body, or for her.

    The vignettes, those moments of time slowed down, create moments of thoughtfulness and stillness in a play of much movement, both metaphorical and physical: Helena striding the stage searching for her man, who in his turn has run off to play at war and the exposure of Parolles and the capitulation of Bertram, who Helena loves not because he is virtuous or a good person, but because he contrasts with her position at the start – young and handsome and spoiled and privileged, whilst she is played as older, plainer and sadder. Poor Bertram’s wants are not important: he must love her and marry her because the king wills it so, he is the payment for the cure. To be so disempowered usually falls to the woman, but Bertram is a man and is able to escape – for a while – into the male enclave of the army and of war and of whoring – although it is this last that eventually traps him.

    What more could be demanded from this production? The characters fill the stage, and use all of it imaginatively and well, as three different locations are given space and depth by the use of lighting and the freezing of actors as they disappear into darkness. The Paris court is beautifully evoked after the dark colours worn at Rossillion, bereft of the youth of Bertram and leaving a mistress in black, by the lushness of the red carpet, the ornate double doors bathed in gold light, not forgetting the ending with its promise of new life and the return of spring celebrated with that shower of petals – but not the promise of a true happy ever after, and not with everything ‘solved’.

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  1. [...] until 27 August, if you can get there).  You can, however, still catch Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which will be broadcast on 1 October.  By that time, more cinemas may well have signed up to [...]

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Visit the National Theatre website for tickets and further information on this production.

Cover photo: Michelle Terry (Helena), Oliver Ford Davies (King of France) and George Rainsford (Bertram). Photo by Simon Annand.

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