ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
You’ve got to hand it to Christopher Gaze. When he chose the shows for the small tent at this year’s Bard, he didn’t exactly go for the crowd-pleasers. Richard II combines a barely comprehensible political plot with a wimpy, inept, self-pitying king as its titular hero. All’s Well That Ends Well features another of Shakespeare’s least likeable male protagonists and a reactionary, one-dimensional plot. Fortunately, Rachel Ditor’s production of All’s Well is almost as successful as Christopher Weddell’s Richard in overcoming its inherent difficulties.
In All’s Well a commoner named Helena (the always radiant Lois Anderson) loves a nobleman, Count Bertram (Craig Erickson). Her late father was physician to the dying King of France (Duncan Fraser), and when she manages to cure the king with one of her father’s remedies, he promises that she can marry Bertram. Bertram ostensibly agrees but then takes off on their wedding night, vowing never to love her except under very special circumstances. Helena pursues him, finds him lusting after pretty peasant girl Diana (Celine Stubel), pulls the old switcheroo (Bertram thinks he’s making love to Diana when it’s really Helena in his bed), and in the end manages to satisfy the circumstances so that all ends well—even for Bertram, who finally concedes. Cleverness conquers all.
In what passes for a subplot a braggart soldier in Bertram’s employ, Parolles (the ever-brilliant Scott Bellis), is given his come-uppance by some of his comrades (including old Lafew, camped up with glee by Allan Morgan). Parolles’ arrogance and self-regard are paralleled to Bertram’s, and that’s pretty much that.
Ditor gives the play an ostensible late-Victorian setting as indicated by Mara Gottler’s rather restrained costumes and David Marr’s Freudian portrayal of the clown Lavatch, complete with couch, German accent, and Rorschach test drawings. Marr is cute but the time-shift merely superficial.
What makes this production work as well as it does is the charm of the performers. Despite the self-serving nature of Helena’s scheme, Anderson earns her character great audience sympathy; and when the adorable Stubel lines up with her to outwit the rather fat-headed Bertram, it’s you-go-girl time all the way, a kind of Sex and the Elizabethan City. Erickson has a much tougher job making us care about his Bertram. Parolles too is an unpleasant fellow: a Falstaff with the personality of Jaques. But without ever making him a nice guy Bellis humanizes him in multiple dimensions.
In the smaller roles Fraser is his usual gruff, reliable self as the King, Patti Allan does nice work as Bertram’s mother, and Haig Sutherland is fun in drag as Diana’s neighbour.
I’ve always wondered if the title of this play is deeply ironic. As in: okay you suckers, you want a comic happy ending at all costs, here it is. That’s the only way it makes sense to me.