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.