Love. Whoever said it conquers all had not the unrequited kind in mind. Unrequited love remains as much of a puzzle in contemporary life as it did when posed as one of the moral dilemmas present in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Last weekend, the Guthrie presented a video of the London National Theatre’s production of the play, directed by one of Britain’s finest, Marianne Elliot.
All’s Well falls under the category of Shakespeare’s problem plays; it drifts away from a more palatable plot and set of characters in exchange for more realistic and complex ones. Michelle Terry plays heroine Helena, who lives with the Countess of Rossillion (Clare Higgins), ever since her father, a well-respected doctor, died six months past. Helena is in love with the Bertram (George Rainsford), the Countess’s son, in spite of her lowly status. Helena soon conjures a scheme to become wife of Bertram: by curing the King of France (Oliver Ford Davies) of fistula, who has agreed to return the favor of restored health by allowing the mistress to marry a nobleman. Bertram reluctantly agrees, and then flees to join the Florentine army in an attempt to escape the marriage.
Elliot combines fairytale imagery with stark reality throughout the play. The stage is kept simple in black, minimally decorated with gothic towers and twisted, dead trees. The only color added to the backdrop occurs as the players enter Florence, and is limited to a lit pub sign. Black and white remain throughout, in setting, costume as well in the use of silhouettes during a few scenes, which all reduce the play’s complexity. Bertram and Helena’s figures are silhouetted as they look onto a cheering crowd after the two are married, suggesting a happy couple. Helena parallels with fairytale heroines in a pair of costumes, first with a scarlet red hood she wears as she journeys to meet the King of France, and later with twinkling shoes and wedding dress, morphing the maiden into a princess.
Misery will always love company, and Bertram’s partner in crime Parolles, played by Conleth Hill, is no exception. The villainy of Parolles is underscored by Hill’s portrayal of the duke’s companion, who is so over-the-top offensive and awful it becomes a thrill to watch. During his banter with Helena on virginity, he humps the bench like a dog to its owner’s leg. Of course, Bertram is so immature and unworthy of his status that he does not see the flaws in his friend, until the king’s lords trick Parolles into deceiving Bertram and the Florentine army. One lord exclaims, “I begin to love him for this,” as Parolles so vividly describes every ill of the lords and Bertram. For, unlike all other characters of All’s Well, Parolles is most simple and nature, and, like an animal in nature, will do anything he can to save himself, even if it means shedding his braggadocio persona and living as a knave.
One problem with All’s Well is heralding Helena as sort of a flawless woman. Certainly, in comparison to Parolles and Bertram, the lady may appear a saint. Helena’s love for Bertram is nonsensical and irrational. While love usually causes those in love to act in such a manner, it is usually occurs after lovers unite. Helena’s love appears to have more to do with a lack of a father figure. She appears vulnerable and lonely. The play never addresses this sort of obvious reasoning behind Helena’s love, which seems to be the biggest problem of the play. Furthermore, the maturing process Helena undergoes seems to be more a product of her proving herself worthy of the crown than actual maturity. She speaks convincingly and respectfully to the king and mother, which is a far cry from Bertram. Her unflinching love for Bertram, despite his unworthiness, is somehow deemed noble.
But the harshest treatment must be reserved for Bertram, who opens the play childishly sword-fighting with imaginary foes. He would never think to join the army for honor’s sake, only to flee a seemingly worse situation: marrying below his rank. Bertram only longs for Helena when he is tricked into thinking she had taken her life for him, which barely makes his shift in thought admirable. Rather, it is an extension of his self-love, for he loves her for the thought that she took her life in order to make Bertram happy again. Then, Bertram is quick to profess his love for Diana, for whom he believes to have bedded on the very night the duke supposed mourned his first wife.
Elliot doesn’t ignore the problems associated with All’s Well That Ends Well, and hints at it at the close of the play. Paparazzi-like photographers begin snapping away pictures of a much-belated wedding celebration. Everyone poses for the camera, and all seemingly is well in the end. But Helena and Bertram leave the audience with shocked looks upon their faces, which profess all the posing was for show, and who knows what will happen next.
The Guthrie’s series of video presentations of National Theatre productions continues in February with Nation.