To th’ wars: Sport for Jove’s All’s Well That Ends Well

Often grouped alongside his ‘problem’ comedies, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is a dark and peculiar play that binds itself around the double-edged sword of honour. Written around 1605, its bedfellows are the equally perplexing comedies Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida; the tragedies Othello, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, and King Lear; and the Roman plays Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra. I mention all these plays not as a list, but as an indicator of Shakespeare’s range and stylistic concerns – on the one hand, his tragedies are also bound up around honour and right-action, as are his two Roman plays. His Roman plays also concern themselves with issues of war and battle, conflating it with portrayals of love and family. When viewed in this light, his ‘problem’ comedies – so labelled because their content is neither strictly comedic in the Shakespearean sense, nor are they outright tragedies – don’t seem so problematic at all; rather, they seem right at home, and are in many ways precursory stylistic experiments to what Shakespeare would do in his late Romance period.
Playing at the Seymour Centre, Sport for Jove’s All’s Well That Ends Well is a dark and beautiful stranger of a play, an unsettling “fusion of cynicism and idealism,” as A. D. Nuttall writes. Set in France, it is the story of Helena and Bertram and “a young woman’s overwhelming physical desire for a young man and the extraordinary lengths she will go to have him.” Juxtaposing issues of virginity and a maiden’s honour against the backdrop of war and military honour, it asks just how honourable both of them are when they are pushed to their limits. In typical Shakespearean fashion, neither issue is straightforward, nor are the answers clear-cut or easily resolved. Under Damien Ryan’s direction, this production is clear, crisp, fresh and quite deliciously sensual, albeit in a rather troubling way.

Set upon a white disc, Antoinette Barbouttis’ set of a cube-like four-poster bed literally locates Shakespeare’s concerns in a bedroom, but as the scenes change and progress, the bed becomes everything from a bathhouse, to a military training camp, a field hospital, a royal court and many more besides. Very much characterised by its light-dark black-white dichotomy, it juxtaposes the worlds of Helena (whose name means torch, or light), and Bertram (whose name means ‘bright raven’) and their respective traits: where Helena maintains her chastity, Bertram sullies his honour at will while deceiving his superiors. Clothed in dark colours at the court, and lighter freer colours further afield, the characters never feel as though they are from another world, or a world other than that which the play is set in. And while this world is necessarily non-descript in a historical sense, it is for all intents and purposes, our contemporary world, and it loses absolutely nothing of its power from its clever use of letters, smart phones, daggers and sticky-tape across its three-hours running time.
In true Shakespearean fashion, and true to Sport for Jove’s ethos, this is a true ensemble show – no one actor outshines another. And while this remains true, there are a number of standout performances which lift this production into the realm of something quite remarkable and special. Francesca Savige’s Helena is a heady mix of determination and resolution, youthfulness, energy, spark, and a capriciousness which would not seem out of place in Rosalind. When set alongside Edmund Lembke-Hogan’s Bertram – very much the soldier in his dignified bearing and charisma – there is a rather clear distinction between their character’s respective approaches to honour. In George Banders’ Parolles, there is a peacockish charm, but also – appropriately; his name means ‘words’ – elements of the word-drunk rambler, once seen in Mercutio, then Touchstone. In Banders’ Parolles, like Mercutio, there is a dangerous wit underneath his flamboyant tendencies and predilection for scarves, a wit that loves nothing more than to tie itself up in knots around puns and thorny issues, but he is also the situation for much of the play’s moral dilemma, outside of Helena and Bertram. His speech to Helena in I.1 on the virtues of virginity is a masterstroke of writing on Shakespeare’s part – whereby chastity is equated with sinful-selfishness – as well as being an astutely performed and directed scene. Likewise, his capture and torture at the hands of his comrades is similarly discomforting and challenging, as we realise just how dangerous words and the truth can be if when lives and honour are at stake; in many respects, it reminds us of the goading of Malvolio in Twelfth Night – it is harrowing and painful to watch, for his comrades just as much as us, the audience. As A.D. Nuttall wrote, Parolles as a character is perhaps Shakespeare’s final “skirmish on the problem of paroles, words.”
There are many wonderful moments here in Ryan’s production. Like the best Bell Shakespeare productions, out of whose ethos it seems Sport for Jove has descended, there is a clarity, a robust sense of contemporaneity, that belies the text’s four-hundred year old history. Whilst maintaining textual integrity, Ryan has adeptly updated the play’s context to our own time and manages to lose nothing of Shakespeare’s power, dramatic urgency, or elegance, and it is as much a reflection on his skill as a director as it is on the cast and crew that it feels as fresh and riveting as it does. Written late in Shakespeare’s career, the play is, linguistically, rather intense. While not as fractured as Cymbeline or as twisted as Measure for Measure, it is just as beautiful, powerful and vibrant as ever, and there are some deliciously trippy passages or wordplay and riffing on ideas, the full impact of which can only be gained from hearing – seeing – it in performance. To list every moment of unexpected delight in this production would be ineffectual, but underneath the muscularity of Ryan’s direction and the robust understanding of [the] play inherent to every scene, there is a delight that is never far away. I won’t spoil the play’s climax, except to say that just like its statement in Measure for Measure, it is audacious in its conception, perversely thrilling in its execution and torturously gruelling in its revelation.
While I could easily have titled this ‘Love is a battlefield,’ that would be taking the easy way out. Certainly, All’s Well That Ends Well does equate love with a battlefield, but it is more than that, more than a cliché. The militaristic imagery employed time and again by Shakespeare, by his characters, builds to a point rather than being statements of the obvious. Helena and Parolles depict virginity as a fortress under siege, and while she prepares to lose her city to Bertram’s siege and inflate like a drum in pregnancy, Shakespeare doubles the image by having the soldiers, late in the play, lose their drum, the very symbol of their masculinity. This is beautifully expounded upon in the program notes, and while the symbolic connotations and reverberations are too long and numerous to go into here, it dovetails neatly into Helena’s mythological counterpart, Helen of Troy, who also “made a soldier ‘lose his drum’ for the dangerous enticement of love and sex, and turned a love affair into a war.”
By the play’s end, as Bertram has become completely ensnared by the plot’s complicated contrivances, just as all’s well that ends well, you could be forgiven for thinking Shakespeare has turned to  cliché and formula as a way out of his conundrum, rushing to deploy a fairytale ‘happily ever after’ so he can fulfill the promise of the play’s title. The truth, however, couldn’t be further from it. Shakespeare goes “out of his way to emphasize the bare theatricality, the artificiality, of the dénouement… The effect of heightening the theatrical stratagem at this point is not [to] “deconstruct” marriage itself but to make one feel the reality of marriage at a level deeper than that of conscious relationships.” What Nuttall is evoking here is platonic love, ‘pure’ love – real love – that which Helena and Betram perhaps (unknowingly) share at the beginning of the play. Thus, it seems that all is well that ends well, albeit ambiguously so.

The king's a beggar, now the play is done:
All is well ended, if this suit be won,

That you express content; which we will pay,

With strife to please you, day exceeding day:

Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;

Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.
 – Epilogue

Theatre playlist: 16. Hunter, Björk

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