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All's well that ends well
Festival Theatre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Monette

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

Romantic comedy meets fairy tale when a humble doctor's daughter cures the ailing King of France and claims marriage to the disdainful young lord Bertram as her reward. He'll have none of her, preferring to run off to the wars instead - but the ever-resourceful Helena isn't the sort to give up that easily.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Bard's puzzle goes unsolved
Wednesday, May 29, 2002 Print Edition, Page R3

Rating: **

How inconvenient that the British director Tyrone Guthrie should have chosen to launch the Stratford Festival in 1953 with a playbill that included All's Well That Ends Well. One of the so-called problem plays, with an ambiguous romance that casts a long shadow over its comedy, All's Well That Ends Well requires a visionary directorial solution. Instead, as the festival celebrates the 50th season that opened Monday, Stratford artistic director Richard Monette is offering a very traditional staging, balanced but dull. Required by history and sentiment to revive the difficult play, the often-outrageous Monette appears unusually subdued by a puzzle he has failed to solve.

The problem in the play lies in the powerful but unrequited love that Helena (Lucy Peacock) feels for Bertram (David Snelgrove). He's a snotty French aristocrat; she's a poor doctor's daughter and lady-in-waiting to Bertram's mother, the wise old Countess of Rossillion (Domini Blythe). With the Countess's blessing, Helena wins Bertram's hand as a gift from the King of France (William Hutt) whom she cures of a nasty ailment by means of her late father's medicine.

But Bertram will have none of her and runs off to war in Italy with his braggart companion Parolles (Tim MacDonald). Helena follows disguised as a pilgrim, and tricks him into sleeping with her in the belief he's cuddling up to the Italian peasant girl he's trying to seduce. Finally exposed as a philanderer and liar, Bertram is forced to accept Helena and, in theory, all's well that ends well.

Generations of theatre people have not been satisfied that it did and left the play unstaged until Guthrie mounted his groundbreaking production at Stratford and brought it back into the repertoire. Accounts of that production suggest that he made much of the play's farcical comedy but also, setting the action at the beginning of the 20th century, turned Helena's lust and Bertram's scorn into realistic contemporary emotions. Subsequent directors have often suggested their final union is not a happy one, choosing to show them physically separated at the end of the play, while Stratford's literary manager David Prosser argues in his program notes that the characters' behaviour should be read through the archetypal patterns of fairy tale -- Bertram flees what is his destiny -- rather than submit to contemporary psychology.

Setting these interpretations aside, Monette would prefer we take the play at face value. To achieve that he attempts a balancing act in a production that, surprisingly for this director who so delights in overblown farce, reins in the comedy so that it will not compete for attention with a dark, but ultimately successful romance. The artistic director has increasingly returned to bare-stage Shakespeare in recent seasons and here displays his masterful control of physical action on the wonderfully flexible and evocative thrust stage designed for the Festival Theatre by Tanya Moiseiwitsch back in 1962. In this pared-down scheme, the actors produce careful, narrow performances, full of feeling when required but dispensing with the awkward bits.

Peacock, weeping bitterly as the love-struck Helena, plays the character as noble and clever -- very similar, if a shade less cheerful, to her scheming Rosalind in 2000's As You Like It. She disregards the character's lust and glides over both her self-loathing and her relentless ambition, which leaves no room for the possibility of a more complex Bertram, put-upon perhaps or frightened. In that role, Snelgrove is merely petulant, never examining the self-destructiveness that might suggest this young man's best interests lie in marriage to Helena, like a Taming of the Shrew in which the sexes are reversed.

It is the older generation who offer us that interpretation with Blythe's fine Countess Rossillion producing real warmth in her conviction of Helena's merits and real anger at her son's behaviour. And from his throne, Hutt's dryly ironic King of France more subtly suggests that neither Helena nor Bertram really know what is good for them. The comedy, meanwhile, gets short shrift from Benedict Campbell's well-spoken but unimaginative version of the clown Lavatch and MacDonald's perfunctory Parolles. Monette has successfully ironed out the play's contradictions and ambiguities, but he hasn't made it interesting.

Offering Shakespeare that is finely spoken and nicely displayed on the thrust stage, the production shows off what has been achieved in 50 years at Stratford. But it also reveals a festival intellectually conservative to the point of being isolationist, looking neither backward to Guthrie's example of innovation nor forwards to some new explanation of the play. At 50, the solipsistic festival justifies its existence merely through its longevity.

All's Well That Ends Well continues at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont., to Aug. 31. For ticket information call: 1-800-567-1600.

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