I recently went to see Shakespeare in High Park’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well (directed by Ted Witzel). I was so excited to see this show because, not only does SiHP put on a fun show, but this is a Shakespeare show that is rarely done. It is a complex, dark comedy and includes an ending that ends ‘well’ but leaves you questioning whether that is good enough. It places you in a world where people have the right and the ability to determine whether you are worthy or not.
I’ll include a quick summary for those who might not know the story. Helena is the daughter of a recently deceased physician and she helps cure the dying king of France so he allows her to marry whoever she wants. She chooses Bertram who is handsome but a snob. He hates this arrangement because she is a commoner. He responds by running away to war. Bertram writes Helena a letter saying he will not be her proper husband unless she can get his family ring from him and becomes pregnant with his child. All of these requirements he believes to be impossible for her to fulfil.
Helena follows Bertram who is trying to woo another lady (Diana) into sleeping with him. Helena works with Diana who convinces Bertram to give the ring to her. Diana says she’ll sleep with him but then at the last minute they do a switcheroo and Helena sleeps with him and BAM pregnant. Bertram returns to France after hearing Helena is dead (because she starts a rumour that she is). She shows up pregnant with his child and with his family ring due to her resourcefulness so he finally agrees to be her husband.
All’s Well That Ends Well, right? Except no. Bertram treated Helena so poorly and he truly does not deserve the smart and plucky woman for his wife. So how do you deal with this complicated story?
Witzel smartly transforms the story into one about men and women who don’t like to play by the rules. Helena is spunky and smart. Even though she is a commoner, Helena is able to rise above her rank due to her intellect and she earns the respect of the Countess (Bertram’s mother) and the King of France. But she is not what a stereotypical respectful woman should be. Helena is not submissive and she speaks her mind.
Bertram is taken aback by her aggressive pursuit of him and turned off by it. Immediately after curing the King of France, Helena changes from her suggestive nurse outfit into a wedding dress simply by adding a poufy skirt. I actually appreciated the nurse outfit because it showed how she is a woman who owns both her sexuality and her intellect. I also like that Helena removes the attachment for her dress from her backpack as if to say she was so confident in her abilities that she knew to came prepared for the wedding.
Probably the most lively character in this production is the Clown who is played by the incredibly Rachel Jones. The clown, Lavatch, functioned as a jester of sorts for the Countess and an all-knowing fairy godmother type for the audiences benefit. She would occasionally stop the show to interject with some wisdom about love and self-reflection. I really wish I knew the poem or song she performed. But she got up there in front of that microphone and mood lighting and lay some truth bombs down about what it means to fight every day. If this had been a jazz club, I would have been snapping in agreement.
Jones’ role worked just as well within the framework of the story. The character makes a lot of sexual jokes and Jones was costumed like a floozy. I think she even had a fake butt. Much like Helena and Parolles, Lavatch is an outsider to the highly-educated nobles of the show. But immediately attention is drawn to her and the audience understands that she is valuable and worthy despite being of common status. A strong message throughout Witzel’s All’s Well is that a person’s worth is not determined by how society reacts to them.
Now I’m going to do another summary of the Parolles/Two Lords subplot. Parolles is friends with Bertram but he is a scoundrel with a big head with minimal military experience. Most people see through this. If this was a commedia dell’arte play, he would be Capitano. There are two lords also participating in the war and they want to expose Parolles for the coward he is to Bertram. They kidnap him and he breaks easily believing his life is at risk by the enemy. He gives less than stellar reviews of his friends (including Bertram) and everyone laughs at him. He is considered the ‘villain’ of All’s Well but he is relatively harmless.
One of the strongest choices that Witzel made was to make Parolles gay. Witzel sets this up early in the show by suggesting that Lafew discovered Parolles’ gay porn and is holding it against him. Parolles’ character becomes much more sympathetic after this point and his kidnapping becomes an uncomfortable hate crime to watch. The downfall of Parolles’ becomes less about his cowardliness and more about the exposure of his sexuality. Once again, society dictates who is worthy and who is not – and sadly few remain on the side of Parolles’ by the end.
Parolles’ is classified as the villain in All’s Well but he is relatively harmless to everyone. I do not think it would be hard to argue that the real villain in this story is Bertram. Handsome, heroic, and high on the social ladder. But Bertram has no wisdom and no dignity. Even his mother is appalled by his behaviour and completely aware that he is unworthy of Helena.
This begs the question in the end – why does Helena love Bertram? He kind-of sucks and he treated her like dirt. In my opinion, Helena’s love for Bertram is her biggest character flaw. But also the majority of the other character’s as well. I think Helena falls into the trap of believing what society tells her to. Bertram is good-looking, militarily accomplished, and has a high social standing. Bertram is unobtainable to her which makes him something that she covets. Society proclaims that he is an amazing bachelor and she cannot have him – so she wants him because she is told that he is the ideal. But she never stops to question his character.
It is funny that Helena remains blind to his unworthiness of her even till the very end but Witzel ensures the audience knows that it is Helena, Lavatch, and Parolles who are worthy of society’s respect because they continue to fight to be themselves every step of the way.