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William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, National Theatre (London), NT Live Telecast

 Michelle Terry (Helena), Oliver Ford Davies (The King of France), George Rainsford (Bertram), All's Well That Ends Well, National Theatre 2009. Photo Simon Annand.

Michelle Terry (Helena), Oliver Ford Davies (The King of France), George Rainsford (Bertram), All's Well That Ends Well, National Theatre 2009. Photo Simon Annand.William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

Director – Marianne Elliott
Designer – Rae Smith
Lighting Designer – Peter Mumford
Music – Adam Cork
Movement Director – Laila Diallo

National Theatre (London), NT Live Telecast (Amherst Cinemas, Amherst, Mass.)
October 3rd, 2009

For the second production in their inaugural season of “NT Live” telecasts, the National Theatre has selected one of Shakespeare’s less commonly staged plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. (The telecasts, appearing in selected venues worldwide, are not exactly live, but slightly delayed until an appropriate local viewing hour.) All’s Well has a rather sparse production history: the first known performance of the play took place in 1741, the Victorians (with the notable exception of G.B. Shaw) spurned it as a hopelessly vulgar piece with a most-ladylike heroine, and more contemporary productions have relied heavily on distinctive—if not intrusive—scenic effects (Tyrone Guthrie’s 1953 production featured a locomotive, aviators, and explosions; Joe Papp’s 1978 staging in Central Park put the characters in motion around dollhouse-sized sets). Director Marianne Elliott and Designer Rae Smith seem to be working in that line. The set here features a dark, gothic landscape of crags, towers, and warped trees; projections of owls, foxes, and wolves prance, howl and hoot—it’s all a bit Tim Burtonish. Once our heroine, Helena, sets forth alone in a red hooded cloak, we are firmly in the realm of fairy tales. (For a critique of this approach, see Huntley Dent’s July 27th review from London in this journal.)

The tale told in the play is so strange as to require a particularly intense mise en scène. Helena, an orphaned young lady of modest birth, conceives a passion for Bertram, the son of her guardian, the Countess of Rossillion. Using lore handed down to her by her physician father, Helena cures the sufferings of the King of France. Her reward is the husband of her choice: Bertram. Mortified at being forced into what he sees as a degrading match, the groom flees France for the Italian wars, leaving his marriage unconsummated and his wife with only a parting letter: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a ‘then’ I write ‘never.’” The spurned wife becomes a wanderer, until chance provides her with the nigh-miraculous opportunity to fulfil the cruel terms of her husband’s letter, via a plot contrivance seen also in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: the bed-trick. In a midnight assignation, Helena slyly substitutes herself for Bertram’s intended mistress. The action then returns to the French court for the resolution of all problems.

The fairy tale associations seem eminently justified, what with the piling up of folkloric motifs: the curing of the king, the series of imposing tasks, the bed-trick. But there is another layer here. The set evokes not only the dark and threatening woods, but also the derelict world of men. The two settings in France, the court and the home of the Countess, with their backdrop of weathered, haphazardly nailed boards, convey a realm associated with age and mortality: the Countess, played with unusual intensity and sternness by the distinguished Clare Higgins, is in mourning for her husband, as is Helena for her father. The court of France is ruled over by a slowly dying King (Oliver Ford Davies, alternatingly cranky and fearsome). The younger characters display an obvious and understandable desire for mobility and escape. But rather than redeeming this moribund world, the young only complicate matters. Michelle Terry, appealing but not conventionally pretty, manages to put across both Helena’s lovesick yearning and implacable determination—her characterization just skirts the edge of the darkness in this most ambiguous heroine. George Rainsford’s Bertram first appears in a pantomime of swordplay, mocking imaginary enemies who inevitably fall before him. Eager to prove his nobility and manhood, he is a pretty, swaggering, clueless puppy—one who suffers a lengthy course in obedience training.

Given the romantically (and morally)–challenged couple at the heart of the play, All’s Well relies for success on the strength of several key supporting roles: the Countess and the King, certainly; but even more importantly the two trickster figures: the clown Lavatch, attendant upon the Countess; and the braggart soldier Parolles, companion to Bertram. Here, one is a notable success and the other a puzzling failure. Conleth Hill’s Parolles is a gaudy delight, an overdressed, drawling self-promoter. We first see him engaged in a fairly lengthy bit of banter with Helena on the subject of virginity—and whether or not it is proper to defend it. Hill and Terry have a good deal of fun in this apparently aimless exchange. But the interplay between these two neatly encapsulates the coming action, with its confusion of sexual and martial themes, and its foreshadowing of Helena’s unnaturally prolonged virginity. Parolles, like his master, gets a pretty thorough comeuppance in the play, but Hill, swanning through the concluding party scene, hints that his character endures. Lavatch, however, seems entirely without weight here. Brendan O’Hea plays him as an Angry Young Man, and that’s not a bad approach to the character; however, Elliott’s conception of the play, admirable in many ways, leaves little space for Lavatch’s satirical vision. Michael Thomas as the old lord Lafew makes a stronger impression, and it is Hill’s Parolles who dances in the clown’s own robe at the end of the play.

This production makes a good case for the value (not least the entertainment value) of the telecasts, which NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner has termed “a new genre: not quite live theatre, not cinema, but an exciting approximation of the real thing.” The first play to appear via NT Live, Ted Hughes’s version of Racine’s Phèdre (featuring Helen Mirren), was presented at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, which has a proscenium stage and a mid-sized auditorium seating around 900. The Olivier is another matter entirely. Its large, fan-shaped auditorium seats over 1100 and its open stage requires a very different kind of blocking, presenting real challenges for camera work. Too many filmed productions, especially those from large venues, are marked by awkward or ill-timed shifts between long and close shots. No such annoyances distracted from the production here. One word of caution: if you are not used to High Definition broadcasts, the intensity of the picture can be briefly disorienting. For more on NT Live, see Keith Kibler’s “A Singer’s Note’s Notes, 4.”

(Upcoming in the NT Live series are Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation and Alan Bennett’s Habit of Art. Venues include the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, Time and Space in Hudson, Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany, and Amherst Cinemas in Amherst.)

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