Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Well, All Well Ends

Young love is more often known for its intensity than its wisdom, certainly no-one more artfully affirmed this than William Shakespeare. Which makes intriguingly controversial the title of his post Elizabethan comedy All's Well That Ends Well. The Wikpedia entry notes that this is classified as a "problem play" because centuries of assessments have discovered that there is a rather tragic quality to what actually happens in the play despite all the clever dialogue. Personally, I don't see why this element of tragedy should prevent it from being a comedy, rather I take it as another indication of Shakespeare's peculiar genius in producing something that would sit easily among works centuries newer that indulge liberally in a variety of moods and ideas while still being broadly called drama or comedy. All's Well That Ends Well is a portrait of how truly funny human ridiculousness can lead to mercurial and sad results.

I watched a 1981 BBC production directed by Elijah Moshinsky, produced by Jonathan Miller who also directed several productions of Shakespeare for the BBC. I found Miller's production of King Lear so badly misconceived I wasn't able to finish watching it and this production of All's Well That Ends Well suffers in the same way to some extent, particularly in the casting of Angela Down as Helena, the central character. I suspect it was Miller or Moshinsky who instructed her to play Helena as wise and sort of clinical as part of a deliberately provocative expression regarding the nature of the character. The result, though, is something that simply doesn't make sense. Helena as played by Down comes off as someone too cool to swoon over a handsome young nobleman who despises her and she'd definitely know better than to force the king into making him marry her. Helena is clever, certainly, as evinced by her elaborate plan to trick Bertram into having sex with her. But forcing a man who hates you to have sex with you hardly reflects the wisdom that comes through in Down's performance.

Parolles, a vassal of Bertram's, is played a bit more appropriately by Peter Jeffrey whom I recognised from the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara (though according to imdb I've seen him in several other things). Parolles is a bit like a more perfidious version of Falstaff; a boaster, coward, and drinker like the more famous character but much more willing to double cross his friends and much more vain. The scene where his comrades kidnap him, blindfold him, and speak in nonsense jargon to imitate a foreign language is one of the most genuinely funny bits in all of Shakespeare's plays.

Even better cast was Celia Johnson as Bertram's mother whose benevolence and love for Helena conveys the sense in which Helena marrying Bertram is actually a good idea--in that having Helena as a daughter in law might improve having Bertram as a son, though the countess is too nice to put it that way.

The production has nice costumes and the lighting seems inspired by Rembrandt, which was an excellent idea.

For a more appropriate take on Helena and a slightly less effective take on the countess, here's a clip from a more recent production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It contains some of the most obnoxious lens flares I've seen--this is a filmmaking trend that really needs to go away.

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