10 June 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

It must be summer because I've been to the theatre. As previewed at the weekend, it was to see All's Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre.

Some very positive comments to make. First, the design and the staging were great. Rhoda Koenig in the Independent curiously attacked these as if they were some kind of dressing-up, to disguise the difficulties of the play. In fact the use of costumes and imagery from different eras, and the pervasive use of fairy-tale motifs is inherent to the reading of the play: you can't take it as realist in any sense. Helena, the central character, is sometimes Cinderella, sometimes Red Riding-hood, sometimes Patient Griselda. The play, in this production, can be seen as a meditation on the various roles women can take in the world.

Other positives: a lot of the jokes worked. The character of Parolles really fitted in well, despite some over-playing, as a foil to the story of Bertram. His character reminded me of Lucio in Measure for Measure - clearly immoral but with important lessons to impart, and a joie de vivre to be envied. Some very good acting in some minor roles. Good music.

Any negatives, I think, stem from the fact that the play can't really work these days. The main reason, as I suggested earlier, is the character of Bertram. In this production his callowness is emphasised, but that only adds to the mystery of why Helena should fancy him. The Parolles subplot fatally undermines any moral standing he has. Even in the final scene, he lies and lies and lies until he can't get away with it any more. The King forgives him. As in a lot of late Shakespeare there's a clear longing for reconciliation, but it isn't worked through. The text doesn't provide any justification for it, and this production can't. In earlier times, perhaps Bertram's reported military achievements would earn respect. But that doesn't work nowadays. Instead, as Billington says, the closing tableaux reflect an air of perplexity: what the hell's just happened? That may be the only reaction we can have to this play these days.

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