Court Theatre

The title of Shakespeare’s dark comedy All’s Well That Ends Well sounds suspiciously like “the end justifies the means.” And rightly so: in this play, with its Machiavellian overtones, a minor character’s remark–“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”–is confirmed again and again.

Because so much unhappiness precedes this comedy’s “happy” ending, we leave it more thoughtful than delighted, despite the ingenuity of its plot resolutions. Its disturbing moral mix perhaps explains why All’s Well has touched a modern nerve–it’s been recently revived and well received at both the Stratford festival and Boston’s Huntington Theatre. Nicholas Rudall’s Court Theatre staging, though it never sets fire to the script, rightly puts the characters before the preposterous plot–the only way to make the play work for audiences in 1989.

Based on a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the plot details five serious tricks the characters play on each other (or, more properly, that Shakespeare plays on all of them). Helena, the orphaned daughter of a famous physician, is pining away at the court of Rossillion from a near-hopeless love for the snobbish young Count Bertram. “There is no living, none, if Bertram be away,” she says in a lovely speech that yet reeks of one-sided adoration. Helena will use any means to gain his love.

After curing the king of France of a nearly fatal malady (using one of her daddy’s secret home remedies), Helena asks the grateful monarch to reward her by letting her marry whomever she wants from the court. Though the finest French nobles vie for her favor, Helena’s choice is Bertram, the only man not willing to marry her–he doesn’t want to throw himself away on a poor doctor’s daughter. Seeing Bertram’s anger, Helena withdraws her request, but the king has been stung by Bertram’s insolent opposition and forces him to marry Helena anyway.

Once they’re married, Bertram escapes Helena by running off to war with his cowardly, corrupting friend Parolles, a misogynistic cynic who reminds him: “A young man married is a man that’s marred.” Bertram, who has never consummated the marriage, leaves behind a snotty letter declaring that until Helena can obtain the ring on his finger and get a child from him, he will never return to her. Helena follows Bertram to Florence, where she learns he intends to deflower Diana, a young girl of no higher birth than herself. This affords the ardent Helena the perfect opportunity to trick Bertram into performing his marital duty–at the very moment he thinks he’s debauching a local virgin. She justifies this demeaning stratagem by citing–twice–the phrase that’s the title of the play. Pursuing her “wicked meaning in a lawful deed,” Helena in effect protects Diana’s virginity so that she can lose her own and win back her husband. (She also throws a scare into everyone by letting them assume she’s dead–the setup for one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices, a miraculous “resurrection” scene, also employed in Much Ado About Nothing.)

The barest synopsis suggests how many thorns infest this rose garden. The play asks us to take as its heroine Helena, who has an almost masochistic ardor for a man whose faults are obvious to all but her. Even Bertram’s compassionate mother, the Countess (whose encouragement of Helena’s love, with the king’s patronage, should have settled forever the question of Helena’s lesser rank), has virtually disowned Bertram by the end. We see him lie to Helena about his plans for their wedding night, and later brazenly deny bedding Diana. And still Helena’s love refuses to die.

To complicate matters, we also see Bertram ensnared in a marriage against his will–a responsibility he greatly fears (though the play suggests no motive beyond selfishness). In the end the ill-matched lovers, who are only united by a trick that humiliates them both, must disgust modern audiences–though Elizabethan spectators would have thought Helena correct to do what was necessary to claim her conjugal right.

One way to get beyond the plot’s multifaceted unpleasantness is suggested by a line that is used to describe Parolles but could fit the lovers as well: “Is it possible that he should know what he is and be what he is?” These characters don’t know themselves, and that excuses some things and explains much of the rest. Helena’s unquestioning love for Bertram blinds her both to his faults and to her own self-abasement. Bertram is a worthless cad who’s blind to natural nobility and his own real needs. (He’s also clearly, and justifiably, scared by the sheer ferocity of Helena’s pursuit.) But ironically the target of the comment–Parolles–knows himself only too well; it’s the men he’s duped who expose him as the cowardly fraud he is, a fact he tries to conceal. They do it in one of Shakespeare’s funniest and meanest exposure scenes; in its unsettling mix of hilarity and pathos, it ranks with Malvolio’s comeuppance in Twelfth Night.

Rudall’s painstaking production eloquently exposes these well-fleshed delusions, though with precious little urgency. Imitating the fete champetre escapism of the paintings of Watteau and Lancret, Rudall sets the action in the early 18th century and clothes the actors in sumptuous Regency costumes (by Andrew B. MarJay). Jeff Bauer’s cream-colored set–elegantly symmetrical imitation-marble balustrades and a shimmering white curtain–softens the story’s harsher edges. Rita Pietraszek’s sepia lighting warmly bathes the stage, and Rick Hasler’s sound design mirrors the play’s range by alternating Elizabethan lute songs with Baroque trumpet voluntaries.

These sweet illusions set off the less pleasant illusions the characters perpetrate. With an appropriate monomaniacal fervor, Celeste Williams as the all-enduring Helena never wavers from unswerving loyalty to her haughty louse; Williams also suggests the delight in intrigue that propels Helena over so many obstacles. In the thankless role of Bertram, Steven Hauck is right not to deepen the character–the role doesn’t really permit it–or to try to suggest that his delayed love for Helena is anything more than the mechanical reversal Shakespeare intended. (When Bertram and Helena finally embraced, I suddenly saw Phyllis George trying to get Gary Dotson and Cathy Webb to do the same.) Still, Hauck’s Bertram seems cold even when he’s courting Diana; it makes you wonder if his true interest isn’t Parolles.

The supporting work ranges from solid to superb. A wonderfully wise and maternal Countess, Denise du Maurier is especially good in the skillfully paced picnic scene, when she encourages Helena to confess her love for her son. Charles Gerace plays the irascible King of France with peppery conviction; and his deliberately shaky delivery, cleverly undermining the play’s smug last lines, ends matters on an appropriately skeptical note.

In his first-act swaggering, William Brown’s Parolles looks a tad too brittle, but after Parolles is unmasked (and unwigged), Brown’s forlorn figure and feeble protestations make this broken man almost pitiable, certainly more human than Bertram. As Lafew, Parolles’s nemesis, Ernest Perry Jr. hits on the right combination: he dryly dismisses, then slowly pities this underdog he helped to create. Lia Mortenson gives Diana an almost feminist dignity, and Michael Halberstam milks the tedious quips of the clown Lavatch for more than they’re worth.

The cast never lacks for appropriate, undistracting stage business–Diana and her mother drying carpets, the Countess and Helena dining al fresco, the sick King signaling his anger by shutting the curtains of his sedan chair. These touches humanize the tale and make All’s Well well enough despite itself; in Court’s production, the dramatic means really do justify the artistic end, a clear and present reading of the play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.