It's a very rarely performed play, and I'm not sure I've ever read it before. Now that I have, I can understand why it's rarely put on. First, the language is strange: very dense and repetitive. Then there's an unfortunate amount of clowning, with the usual jokes about venereal diseases. Above all, though, when I finished the play, my first thought was "Well, that was morally repugnant."
The central character, Helena, cures the King of France's illness. In return, he gives her the young Count Bertram in marriage. He snobbishly rejects her, going through the ceremony but refusing to have sex with her. Later, she gets the chance to trick him into her bed, and at the end of the play, reveals the deception to him and he accepts her.
According to wikipedia "Victorian objections centred on the character of Helena, who was variously deemed predatory, immodest and both 'really despicable' and a 'doormat'". To get all valley girl on their ass, HELLO? Helena strikes me as a brilliant character, out to get what's due to her. And obviously far too good for Bertram, who is, to get all cockney boy on his arse, a total dickwad. So the ending, with its implied "so that's all right then", is shocking.
I'm impatient, now, to find out how the Nash production covers this. Michael Billington in the Guardian gives four stars but hardly covers this reversal. He says:
even though hero and heroine are finally united, there is a look of aghast bewilderment as they pose for the cameras.
The Times review by John Peter gives five big stars and says:
The ending, like a court scene, presided over by Oliver Ford Davies’s wise, grumpy King, leaves you with a magisterial and cunning ambiguity, a sense of the brooding openness of life, of which Shakespeare is such a master.
Which is really O Level standard analysis.
(Rhoda Koenig in the Independent, by the way, hated the production so much she barely comments on the interpretation.)
So, an evening to look forward to. And staying in snob mode, I then watched BBC2's Arena programme on T S Eliot. And realised that as snobs go, I am not fit to wipe his monocle.
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