For the fourth and final night of my Shakespeare Week, I attended All’s Well that Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was third play I saw featuring Alex Waldmann, and the second where he was the lead (he was Orlando in As You Like It and Horatio in Hamlet). All’s Well also features Joanna Horton as Helena (she was Celia in As You Like It), and Jonathan Slinger as Parolles (he played Hamlet).
(Most of the actors in All’s Well were also in As You Like It and Hamlet. Since these three plays alternate in the same theater, many of the actors are in two or three of the plays. Since Titus Andronicus is in the smaller Swan Theatre, those actors can’t be in the other plays, as the schedules would conflict.)
All’s Well is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and it’s not ofter performed. Director Nancy Meckler has said about All’s Well:
The play is neither a comedy or a tragedy and people are unsure whether its ending is a happy one. I think that is part of the reason it is called a ‘problem play’. But I am really enjoying finding unexpected and surprising clues about the characters which give lots of opportunity for visual storytelling. One of its great strengths is its characters. They are bold, complex, romantic, and funny.
I find the plot a bit hard to swallow. Helena cures the king of France of a fistula, and in exchange, she asks him to give her something: she wants to marry Bertram. She had known Bertram all her life, having grown up in court with him, and being considered a daughter by Bertram’s mother. But she had never let on that she loved Bertram.
The king orders the marriage, against Bertram’s wishes, then the latter finds an excuse to go off to war to avoid consummating the marriage. Helena later goes in search of him, and sets up a bed trick while in Florence to get him to unknowingly sleep with her. At the end of the play, Bertram returns to court, meets the woman who he thought he slept with, then discovers Helena pregnant, and realizes that he loves her.
The plot is a bit contrived, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies have similar twists, but I never really got All’s Well before. In fact, it wasn’t until after the play that I realized what the point was. Talking with Alex Waldmann the following morning, he explained what he thought about Bertram:
“He doesn’t just fall in love in the final lines of the play, he just realizes that she comes home pregnant and that’s the one chance that he may have to be able to make amends for all the bad things he’s done. It’s not about suddenly falling in love, it’s thinking […] this person I’ve known all my life, she’s carrying my baby, […] this is my one chance at the future.”
I admit that having seen just one filmed production of All’s Well (the BBC TV production from the 1980s), I never saw the play this way. Perhaps the comic elements of the play made it hard to realize that this was what Bertram was thinking. But the expression on Bertram’s face when he puts his hand on Helena’s pregnant belly shows all that Waldmann said above.
This is a funny play, and there was much laughter. In Act II, Scene 1, Helena explains what she wants as reward for her healing powers:
Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command:
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.
In Act II, Scene 3, the king offers Helena four lords to choose from to be her husband. Bertram is standing at the rear of the stage, smirking as Helena sends each of the four lords away, with great tact. But when she finally chooses Bertram, he is stunned. This entire scene is delightfully played, and Bertram shows surprise and says:
My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
But the play contains much more than just the relationship between Helena and Bertram. Just as Henry IV is about Prince Hal, it’s also about Falstaff; All’s Well has its own Falstaffian character in Parolles. This character, admirably played by Jonathan Slinger, is the comical sub-plot in the play. As his name suggests, he is all words (paroles means “words” in French). In this production, is the very model of a modern blustering soldier, right out of Gilbert and Sullivan, with a long mustache and a smarmy laugh. Parolles is very concerned about his clothes; in the text, he wears a number of scarves as decorations. One Lord describes him as:
the gallant militarist,–that was his own
phrase,–that had the whole theoric of war in the
knot of his scarf, and the practise in the chape of
In two long scenes in Act IV, Parolles is taken “prisoner” by his own men, blindfolded so they can’t see him, and they speak to him with odd accents, asking him to give up information about his army. Which he does, and then is shamed when he sees who had been interrogating him.
Jonathan Slinger, who just the night before was a visceral Hamlet, comes across here as an excellent comic actor, and the whole Parolles side plot is a delightful bit of the play that had the audience laughing a great deal.
When the play began, I felt that Joanna Horton was a bit wooden, but I realized that this was part of the style of the production; it was played a bit like an Edwardian farce. As the play goes on, Helena gets more confident, and her delivery changes, as her character grows. She finishes as a strong character who has been through great difficulty, standing up for what she wants in a very masculine world.
Greg Hicks (Claudius in Hamlet) was also excellent as the king of France, first seen in a wheelchair with doctors and nurses around him, then later dancing a very acrobatic corante after he is healed.
The staging was very sparse; the entire stage was bare, with actors adding and removing furniture as needed, and at the back of the stage, a backdrop occasionally revealed a sort of fishtank-like structure, which was used in different ways, as a small room.
This was a delightful production, and the audience loved it. I came away with more appreciation for this play that I hadn’t particularly liked before, and especially an appreciation for the quality of this company, who I saw three times in three different plays.
Watch Act I, Scene 3 off All’s Well that Ends Well: