Although Shakespeare is never in danger of falling out of favour, it doesn't mean that all of his plays work equally. There are some works that continually defy those who try to mount them as Steve Vineberg points out in his review from last year of these two.
Tough Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well & Cymbeline
In Dove’s production, she dismisses them with record speed and then indicates Bertram as her choice. And the poor bastard is thunderstruck. In many – I would guess most – productions of All’s Well he doesn’t even know she’s alive, but here he’s quite fond of her; they grew up together, and in the scene between them before he takes off for Paris he’s playful with her before he kisses her on the forehead and asks her to watch over his mother in his absence. (Piercy makes it obvious that that’s not the kind of kiss she’s been hoping against hope from him.) But she’s the daughter of a poor doctor and his mother’s ward – he’s never thought of her as his wife. And he balks at the King’s insistence on telling him whom he should marry. But from the King’s point of view, his honor’s at stake because of the promise he’s made Helena, so he makes it crystal clear to Bertram that if he refuses to marry her he’ll regret it. So the young man makes a pretty and entirely rhetorical speech that places himself in his monarch’s hands – and then runs off on his wedding night with his friend Parolles (James Garnon) to join the army and fight in Florence, in a war that France hasn’t officially joined but that the King has permitted his young warriors to serve in if they so choose. (That Shakespeare makes it a war of no special consequence seems deliberate; it undercuts the virtues we might be moved to see in a young man whose motivation is service to his country, not adventure and escape.) Bertram leaves a letter for Helena proclaiming that he will never sleep with her until she can produce the ring on his finger, which bears the Roussillon family crest, and a child fathered by him, an impossibility on the face of it. But Helena has come so far out of love for him that she takes the next extraordinary step: she starts a rumor that she has died, disguises herself as a pilgrim and follows him to Florence, where she persuades a young woman Bertram has been courting, Diana (Naomi Cranston) to agree to bed him if he will give her his ring. What follows is the bed trick, a staple in the dramatic repertoire of Renaissance plays. In the darkness of night, he makes love to a woman he believes to be Diana but who in fact is Helena. Having obtained both his ring and his seed, she comes back from the dead in the final act carrying his child and they live happily ever after.
The problem in this problem comedy is double-sided: why should we cheer on a woman who goes to such lengths to get a husband who isn’t worthy of her, and why should we be happy when she secures him? The play is always in danger of alienating a modern audience from both Helena and Bertram. I think that both sides of this problem are answered in the text, but a good director has to underscore both the psychological realism in Shakespeare’s depiction of a young woman – Helena can’t be more than eighteen or twenty – who essentially leaps off a cliff after the man she loves and the coming of age that renders Bertram appreciative of the woman he initially scorned out of a combination of wounded pride, indignation, adolescent rebelliousness (he, too, can’t be more than eighteen or twenty), perhaps a little snobbery, and a callow inability to see the value of what’s right in front of his eyes. It’s a real challenge for any director who takes on All’s Well and wants to be true to the play rather than using it to make an ironic – and to me, unconvincing – feminist point. The real problem isn’t that Helena’s behavior is implausible, but that a character who behaves as she does fails to furnish a suitable role model for contemporary young women. Audiences tend to project onto Helena a wish-fulfillment-fantasy vision of how she should act when the boy she adores wants nothing to do with her, and as a result they’re likely to reject her in a way that they never have to reject Viola or Rosalind, who simply postpone the courtship of the men they love until they can cast off their disguises, or Beatrice in Much Ado, whose bantering relationship with Benedick turns naturally to love once their friends trick them into realizing that they won each other’s hearts long ago.
If audiences reject Ellie Piercy’s Helena, it’s neither her fault nor the director’s, since there isn’t a scene in this production built around her passion for Bertram that fails to ring true. Like Cordelia with Lear, this Helena is proactive with the rest of the world but her love reduces her to nervous embarrassment and self-effacement: she begs the King not to push her onto Bertram when it’s clear he doesn’t want her, and after they’re married she asks him for a kiss with a tender modesty that breaks your heart. And Crane’s depiction of Bertram is complex enough to allow for the possibility of a happy ending with Helena, while Dove sets up that ending beautifully. As Crane plays him, Bertram’s objection to marrying Helena has little to do with her personally, except insofar as the idea that he should be paired up with a woman beneath his station offends his aristocratic sensibilities. With the King he may take on the role of an obedient courtier, but when he runs off to join the war he’s playing another part – that of the macho warrior. He’s led in this direction by Parolles (Garnon gives a splendid performance), who’s the kind of companion – shallow, boastful, gossipy, two-faced – no kid who’s struggling toward manhood needs. And Bertram isn’t comfortable in the role he’s chosen for himself. When he takes his leave of his bride, he looks agonized, as if a better self were troubling his conscience. She asks him for the kiss, he gives it, and it’s more than he bargained for: it brings out feelings for her that he had no idea he’d harbored. After he pulls away to join Parolles, he lingers, looking after her.
|Director John Dove|
Every performance in this All’s Well has been completely thought through, and the players share that ease with the verse that makes the expertly scanned lines sound conversational. (And they move through the text at breathless speed.) I particularly liked Janie Dee as the Countess because she sounds all the depths of her relationship with Helena. She suspects that Helena is in love with her son, and she isn’t sure at first how she feels about it: she loves Helena dearly, she thinks of her as an adopted child, yet her son is a count and Helena the daughter of a poor physician. So she interrogates her, calling her daughter and judging her discomfort at the implication that this relationship would make Bertram her brother. It’s a test of Helena’s feelings, but also of the limitations of the Countess’s maternal love for her: when she embraces Helena and encourages her, we see that indeed that love has no limitations. We love the Countess, as we love Helena, because of her authenticity. That’s the key note in Dove’s reading of the play.
The play’s a holy mess – more so than Pericles – and the Fiasco company, two of whom, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, also co-directed, are to be commended for keeping the nutty story coherent as well as for the clarity of their work with the verse. The staging is enormously clever and relies on minimalist production values. (Jean-Guy Lecat designed the set.) The key prop is a trunk in which the villain, Iachimo, hides himself so that he can survey Imogen’s bedroom while she is sleeping and steal a jewel from her – in order to make his invented seduction of her plausible when he tells Posthumus about it. Brody and Steinfeld bring the trunk into every scene, shifting its meaning, so that, for example, when Iachimo proposes the bet with Posthumus the trunk stands in for the pool table they’re playing on. This is an inspired idea, not just because the presence of the trunk during the wager foreshadows the method by which Iachimo will win it but also because the atmosphere of a barroom (which the directors capture effectively) suggests the macho, alcohol-driven bravado that might stir a young husband to treat his bride in such an offensive manner.
|The cast of Cymbeline. Photo by Gerry Goodstein|
- originally published on October 24, 2011 in Critics at Large.