All’s Well That Ends Well, The Globe, 5 June 2011
At this performance the groundlings impressed the cast long before the cast had a chance to impress the groundlings, or anyone else.
Despite the heavy rain, the yard was as full as I have ever seen it. We stood and waited. Most bravely withstood the downpour from under jackets, but some did not even have that protection and got really wet.
The band appeared in the gallery and looked down at us incredulously. They played a dour tune that complemented the opening scene, but which was also apt for the weather conditions.
The cast emerged from the tiring house and peeked up at the sky, then down at us, then back at the rain again. They seemed genuinely in awe of our dedication and we probably buoyed them up. Our willingness to undergo this discomfort was an unmistakable statement of the value we placed on a Globe performance. We were hardcore. Our display of fortitude was a challenge to the cast to give a similar commitment onstage.
Venturing cautiously past the cover of the stage canopy, various actors engaged with the groundlings, asking names and chatting. They were able to get right into the heart of the groundling throng, as the stage configuration for this production featured a long, thin walkway that extended from the centre of the main stage almost to the back of the yard. It had steps on one side at the end to facilitate entrances and exits through the yard.
The French setting for the play was taken as an excuse to deliver the “no photography” instructions in mock French, for which an apology to French spectators was immediately offered.
The performance began. Bertram (Sam Crane) and his mother, the Countess (Janie Dee) bid their extended farewells to each other. During this time Helena stood sorrowfully wringing her hands and wiping tears from her eyes with a green handkerchief.
The Countess was quite a youthful widow and exuded a great degree of energy throughout, not least when she slapped Helena mildly on the face saying “No more of this, Helena” in rebuke of her apparent mourning for her father.
Bertram received some wise precepts from the Countess, as well as the family heirloom ring and a slap on the face mirroring that given to Helena. Before taking his leave, Bertram went to say goodbye to Helena and took her green handkerchief.
After Bertram’s departure for the court in Paris, Helena cried even more and told us of her love for the young man. She might have felt better had she been able to see Bertram’s frequent subsequent fondling of his handkerchief memento of her.
Ellie Piercy’s Helena spent a lot of time looking sour. Not for her the unrealistic fairytale resolve of Michelle Terry’s Helena in the 2009 NT production. She seemed to be in real despair at her situation: her unspoken love for unreachable Bertram.
Jimmy Garnon (Parolles) looked up at the rain that was still pouring down and held out his hand to feel it, muttering “Oh God!” As someone once wrote: “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”.
In reply to Helena’s question about the best way to defend virginity, Parolles stood with his right foot up on the pedestal at the foot of the stage left pillar and gestured with his thumb across his groin saying “Keep him out” with “him” taken to mean what his thumb represented rather than a generalised man.
A series of bawdy double-entendres followed with the audience eventually being included in the fun. When Parolles told Helena that she would have to “like him that ne’er it likes”, he pointed at one of the groundlings at the front of the yard as an example.
Helena taunted him about his cowardice in battle so much that he could only fluster in reply that he was “so full of business I cannot answer thee acutely”. This established his major character weakness, which was reinforced by his ineffectual denials.
Left alone on stage at the end of the scene, Helena restated her love for Bertram and her “project” involving the King’s disease.
The King and his party entered through the centre doors for 1.2. A youthful figure like the Countess, his sprightliness was compromised only by his need for a walking stick, the sole indication of his failing health. He wore a striking green ring on his finger.
Sam Cox played the monarch as if he were a gangland boss rather than a regal figure. Whatever his age or impending illness, this was someone who looked ready and willing to deal with any challenge to his authority.
The King’s long, densely worded reminiscences about Bertram’s father were difficult to follow in the theatre, despite having read the play beforehand. But it was possible to interpret the general mood and content of his words.
Bertram held the King by the arm to help him offstage at the end of the scene.
Back in Roussillon for 1.3, the Countess talked with Lavatch, played by an unusually subdued Colin Hurley. This was perhaps the result of a directorial decision to downplay the comedy of Lavatch and make the ongoing spat between Parolles and Lafeu the comic highlight of the production.
Despite the low-key Lavatch, the audience quite enjoyed the routine based on his contention that “He that kisses my wife is my friend”.
The Countess confronted Helena and eventually made her admit her love for Bertram. Janie Dee’s Countess was curt but kindly and her determination won out against a generally downtrodden Helena. The young woman had a piece of paper ready to show the Countess when explaining that her doctor father had left behind remedies. Helena was convinced that one of them could cure the sickly King.
At the start of act two the King’s health had deteriorated significantly. He was brought onstage in a wheelchair to give the lords his advice before their departure for the wars.
Parolles affected a warlike reputation. He asked one of the lords to mention him to Captain Spurio, speaking “I live” in a portentous voice, as if Parolles was encountering Spurio in person and announcing his threatening presence.
Bringing news of Helena’s arrival at court in Paris, Lafeu asked the King if he wanted to be cured. The King’s brusque “No” was angry and curmudgeonly rather than enfeebled. But his curiosity got the better of him and Lafeu brought Helena in, telling her that he would be “Cressid’s uncle” and leave her together with the King.
Helena was still wringing her hands in nervousness and insecurity. At the King’s first refusal of her help, she moved to leave as if having expected a rebuff all along. In pleading her case, her words were very courageous but she did not appear to be so personally.
The King finally consented, impressed by her offer to suffer death in the event of failure.
Helena looked quite sly, both when asking what the King would promise in return for being restored to health, and also, once the King had asked her what she would like, when requesting the hand in marriage of whatever husband she chose. But she was quick to reassure him that she was not seeking to marry any of his immediate male relatives.
A brief scene (2.2) provided some laughs for the audience. Lavatch’s repeated mention of the word “buttock” was followed by some lewd references to “constable” and things of “monstrous size” fitting in. It was possible among this lewd talk to detect a smidgeon of attraction between Lavatch and the Countess.
The drollery continued with Lavatch’s “O Lord sir!” routine, which ended with the Countess dispatching him to Paris with a letter for Helena.
The news of the King’s cure had spread fast with Lafeu reading the news from a paper that he showed to Bertram and Parolles at the start of 2.3.
The King made another grand entrance through the centre doors, this time bolt upright, pausing only to throw his superfluous walking stick to one side for a courtier to catch. He was accompanied by Helena, who from this point forward was wearing the King’s green ring.
The various lords gathered Helena’s perusal were assembled stage left, while Bertram stood and watched stage right. Although clearly distinguished from each other, there was not much in the way of overt comedy in the lords’ appearance or demeanour. Helena’s dismissal of each in turn was perfunctory rather than hilarious.
Bertram was indignant at being chosen as a husband by Helena. This raised the King’s ire, which was now even more formidable than it had been when he was sick. The King’s long speeches upbraiding Bertram were very intimidating. Unsurprisingly, the callow young man yielded to this pressure.
The comic core of this production was the running feud between Lafeu and Parolles, round one of which got underway during this scene. Lafeu was old like the King and had a similar thuggish demeanour, creating a parallel between the two characters.
As the quarrel got underway, Lafeu was consistently more confident, putting Parolles on the back foot. The old man taunted Parolles saying: “Lord have mercy on thee for a hen!” which he followed by flapping his arms like a chicken and making clucking sounds. This particular taunt was revisited later with Lafeu hinting at an imitation of a chicken.
The comedy of the spat was heightened by a brilliant moment almost unique to the Globe. In the middle of one of Parolles’ retorts the noise of an aircraft came close to drowning out the sound of Jimmy Garnon’s voice.
He paused for the plane to pass and then continued with a sentence in the text almost tailor-made for this particular instant “Well, I must be patient”. The audience appreciated his intelligent, in-the-moment reaction to the aircraft, turning nuisance into humour.
Every step you take
Lafeu continued to land scornful blows on Parolles’ self-esteem when informing him of his new mistress. Lafeu announced his departure and made an intimidating gesture by pointing two fingers on one hand at his own eyes and then pointing those same fingers at Parolles, as if to say “I’ll be watching you”. But Parolles managed to score a point by shouting “Good” after him as he left, effectively commending him for his exit.
Bertram told Parolles of his intention to desert Helena and leave her to her “single sorrow”. He was unhappy about his situation, but did not come across as a conniving monster.
Helena’s green handkerchief was clasped in his hand as he spoke. His words and deeds were focused on rejecting her, but the handkerchief reminded us that the embers of his affection for her were still glowing.
A brief scene (2.4) showed us Lavatch jesting mildly with Parolles. Bertram’s accomplice informed Helena of her husband’s intention to delay their married life and his desire that she leave Paris immediately. Helena was fatalistic in the face of her husband’s statements and requests.
The next scene (2.5) began with Lafeu trying to convince Bertram of Parolles’ cowardice. As soon as the braggart soldier arrived, Lafeu looked askance at his clothes and made sarcastic remarks about his tailor.
Any humour in this continuing dispute was deflated by the appearance of Helena at the far end of the long walkway. Her meek acceptance of Bertram’s terms was accompanied by a request that they embrace, which Bertram accepted. They stood close together in the centre of the walkway.
Helena departed back along the walkway and out of the yard, leaving Bertram and Parolles on the main part of the stage. Bertram appeared to be conflicted about what he had done, but Parolles tried to jolly him along, slapping him on the back and saying “Coragio!”
Bertram did not move despite intermittent attempts to get him to leave. This prompted Parolles into a non-textual address directly to the audience “Look, just let me talk to him for about fifteen minutes, okay?” at which point they both left and the interval came.
Act three began after the interval with a scene that was difficult to understand because the location and the name of the principal character, the Duke of Florence, were not mentioned specifically and an audience had to work out what was happening.
In Roussillon for 3.2, the Countess received Bertram’s letter and seemed happy up until she actually read it. She paused in incredulity after reading out her son’s intention to make the “‘not’ eternal”.
The audience laughed at Lavatch’s good news that the Countess’s son would “not be kill’d as soon as I thought he would.”
After Helena read out Bertram’s letter to her, explaining his terms for calling him husband (acquiring his ring and conceiving his child), the Countess was quite curt with Helena and accused the young woman of hogging all the grief and leaving her none.
Helena’s concluding soliloquy of self-reproach and touching concern for Bertram saw her looking up and imagining bullets bound for her husband flying through the air immediately above her head.
A very brief scene (3.3) saw Bertram and Parolles undertaking military service for the Duke of Florence. This made slightly better sense than the previous scene with the Duke.
After reading Helena’s letter announcing her pilgrimage, the Countess engaged Rinaldo to write a stinging letter to her son (3.4).
The Widow, Diana and Mariana gathered to watch the returning army (3.5). They stood downstage and looked towards the yard doors as military music played outside the auditorium. Mariana was comically excessive in her rant against Parolles.
Helena appeared at the end of the walkway, wearing her hair down. Discussing Bertram with the others, she agreed with their disparaging remarks. This seemed to be partly self-loathing and not detached ironic sarcasm.
A drum, a drum
The army did not make an appearance. Those on stage looked into the distance and described a spectacle unseen by the audience. However, towards the end of the scene Parolles did turn up at the end of the walkway bewailing his lost drum.
Parolles was cajoled into recovering the drum in 3.6. The grandiloquent soldier claimed that he loved “not many words” and the audience laughed at the immediate put-down “No more than a fish loves water”. Bertram decided to show one of his companions the woman he was wooing, who we had already learnt was Diana, the Widow’s daughter.
Helena had problems convincing the Widow of her true identity, but when she yielded she drew close, enabling the bed trick plot to be agreed on.
Act four staged the brilliantly funny ambush of Parolles by his comrades. They hid behind the stage pillars and in corners of the stage and waited.
He looked scared and reacted to hearing the others talk by striking out with his sword at the pillars. He eventually settled centre stage and stuck his sword point down into a gap between the boards so that it stood upright unsupported.
He tried breaking the fingers on one hand with the other, but realised these “slight hurts” would not be convincing. Parolles made as if to run the palm of his hand along the upright blade, but dared not inflict such “great ones” neither.
The comic highlight of this scene in which Parolles answered “thirty fathom” to one of the soldier’s asking “How deep?”, was timed to perfection. The final ambush saw the soldiers pull a sack over Parolles’ head and lead him away.
Bertram met Diana on the walkway (4.2). At first she stood at the far end, but moved towards Bertram as he tried to be more intimate. However, she brushed past him and, maintaining decorum, taunted him with accusations of male perfidy, such as: “so you serve us till we serve you”.
She made sure to ask Bertram for his ring, the one that his mother had given him at the start of the play. Finally, she arranged to meet him late at night, but reminded the audience after his departure that this was all part of the plan.
The bed trick itself was not staged. In fact this production was very strict in keeping to the specifics of the text and not interpolating dumb shows of any kind.
Scene 4.3 showed us the morning after the bed trick. The expository conversation between the two Lords mentioned Helena’s supposed death. Bertram read the stinging letter from his mother, the Countess. Bertram looked haunted rather than triumphant when outlining his various “successes”.
Bertram fondled Helena’s handkerchief as he mentioned his late-night bedding of the woman he assumed to be Diana, indicating that his first love was still not far from his thoughts.
Parolles was brought in and the sack removed from his now blindfolded head. The blindfold was possibly made from one of his own scarves, which Lafeu had commented on so derisorily earlier.
The sight of the braggart soldier crumpling so readily was great fun. Parolles sang like a bird. The comment about Captain Dumaine getting “the shrieve’s fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay” was cut possibly on the grounds of taste. Twenty-first century audiences are probably correct in not finding the sexual exploitation of the mentally disabled a subject for comedy.
Bertram tried to run at Parolles after he heard the soldier’s warning letter to Diana read out. The audience laughed at the local London reference to Mile End.
Needless to say, when Parolles had his blindfold removed, he was stunned and disconcerted to find himself among his comrades and not a foreign army.
Parolles’ soliloquy at the end of the scene was moving, not least because Jimmy Garnon paused at the line end halfway through the key phrase “Simply the thing I am/ Shall make me live.” This pause created two utterances: the first focused our attention on the character’s inherent value as a person, and the second was a positive affirmation of that value.
However, not everything about this speech was as high-minded. Shortly after he came across a rhyming couplet in which a line ending with “pass” was followed by one ending in “ass”. His use of a long vowel in the former obliged him to pronounce the latter word as “arse” to complete the verse. He seemed surprised at the poetic logic of this strict adherence to the rules of rhyme, as if discovering his own speech for the first time.
A short scene (4.4) showed us Helena, Diana and the Widow setting off for Marseilles to see the King. Helena mentioned that Diana would have one last task to perform in the grand plan. It was here that the play title was mentioned for the first time. Helena was now wearing a scallop on her outer garment as a symbol of her pilgrimage.
Some bawdy comments from Lavatch to Lafeu, based on the clown doing “service” livened up scene 4.5. Lafeu handed his purse to Lavatch but he threw it back at his feet. We learnt of the return of Bertram, Lafeu’s proposal of his daughter as replacement wife for the young man and the imminent arrival of the King.
Act five began with Helena discovering that the King was no longer in Marseille but on his way to Roussillon instead. She gave a letter to the Gentleman who was due to reach there before her and her companions. The play title was mentioned for a second time.
Parolles was completed dishevelled, having had little success downshifting from the military. Lafeu was merciless in expressing contempt for Parolles’ situation. He threw him a coin, and mistaking his attempt to speak further for begging, dismissively cast another coin at him. Lafeu sarcastically asked “How does your drum?”
The final scene saw all these various plot strands and pieces of exposition come together as the King arrived in Roussillon in order to oversee the marriage of Bertram to Lafeu’s daughter, Maudlin.
The King was still in rude health, which meant that his handling of Bertram was quite robust, forcing the Count to be extremely repentant. Bertram entered along the walkway and remained there while being held to account.
Lafeu approached Bertram to lead him onto the main stage. He asked the young man if he had a token to give to Maudlin, who was not present onstage. Taking hold of Bertram’s hand, Lafeu immediately noticed, and commented on, the ring on his finger, which he recognised as being Helena’s ring. The King confirmed that he had given this very ring to her.
Bertram protested that it had never been Helena’s, but the King strongly insisted that it had been, eventually ordering Bertram to be detained. Moving downstage, the King grimaced “I am wrapp’d in dismal thinkings”, which for some reason made the audience laugh.
Diana and the Widow entered stage left and Bertram was brought out again to answer Diana’s charge that he was her husband. The Count dismissed her as “a common gamester to the camp”, but Diana had Bertram’s family heirloom ring on her hand to prove she was more than just a casual encounter.
Admitting that he had given her the ring, Bertram incurred the audience’s displeasure for the first time in this scene by describing Diana as someone who could have been obtained at “market-price”.
Bertram finally admitted that Diana had had the ring from him and Parolles’ stuttering and confused testimony, delivered on his knees, told the King that Diana’s account was true.
Diana contradicted the King’s common sense interpretation of the available facts. She riddled so as to speak partly on behalf of the absent Helena, stating that Bertram was both guilty and not guilty of infidelity.
The King ordered that Diana be taken to prison, at which point her fate really did seem to hang worryingly in the balance. But with a final, confident riddle, she heralded the arrival of Helena, who appeared stage right. Despite Diana’s description, Helena was not obviously pregnant.
Helena met Bertram on the walkway where the couple crouched and showed him his letter, explaining that she had met his terms: she had obtained the ring from off his finger and conceived a child by him. When reading the letter she spoke the “&c.” which lent a comic note to the unfolding happy ending.
Bertram professed his love for Helena and they hugged, kissed, and lived happily ever after.
The King’s “All yet seems well” was a positive statement rather than a caveated suggestion of possible disorder to come.
The play’s epilogue was delivered, ending with its entreaty for audience applause. We duly obliged and the performance ended with a jolly Globe jig and more ovations.
Turning round to the other groundlings, it was amazing to see how an almost unbroken three-hour soaking had not dampened their spirits, reduced their numbers, nor removed the smiles from their faces.
This production must inevitably be compared with the last major outing for the play at the National Theatre in 2009. Whereas Marianne Elliot heavily emphasised the fairy tale element in the story and gave us a steely, heroic Helena and a discordant ending, the Globe presented an unembellished and uncomplicated version of All’s Well that did not try to superimpose any overarching directorial concept.
The main concern of the direction and staging of this production was to legitimise the eventual happy ending with Bertram and Helena reconciled and in love, despite the tortuous journey their relationship had taken.
The NT production had totally undercut the happy ending by having the newly reconciled Helena and Bertram look at each other in horror as they realised what they were undertaking.
But this Globe production cleverly seeded an indication early on that Bertram was genuinely, but secretly, in love with Helena all along.
The key to this was Helena’s green handkerchief that Bertram took from her when he left for Paris and which he kept with him for some time afterwards, clutching at it affectionately.
This was supplemented by Bertram’s characterisation as likeable but insecure and malleable.
His initial rejection could be seen in this light as a reluctance to commit, particularly under duress, with his snobbery forming the outward justification. Once married, he still had his doubts, with youthful indiscretion and weakness leading to his dalliance with Diana.
The NT had used the full technical capabilities of the Olivier to create a high-concept production employing bold strokes of set design. Conversely, the Globe delivered a simpler staging of the play, but one with its own intelligent interpretation conveyed through subtle detail.
Update 24 June:
Just found this interview with Janie Dee on TheatreVOICE in which she describes her feelings just before the start of the wet Sunday evening performance reviewed above. Delighted to hear that the mood of the audience actually did have a positive effect on her motivation!
Between 34:30 and 35:30 in the recording she says:
We did a whole Sunday of wet and I remember after the matinee, which went terribly well and was actually rather dramatic and brought something to the play, I went back, got ready for my dinner, had a little rest and then curled up on the sofa and had a chat to everybody and we were all chatting in the green room and it was drip, drip, dripping outside and I felt sort of, you know, when you feel a bit unwell and you think “Oh, I don’t really want to do another wet one.” And then we got into our costumes and I went downstairs… and then I looked at the monitor and the auditorium was full, again, with people in raincoats and then I went out for the promenade, cos I thought “Just get out there and do it” and they were all smiling in the rain. So of course you just go “I’m going to do this show, I bloody am going to do this show.”