All’s Well at the RSC

All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 27 July 2013

An asymmetrical solid arch dominated the back of the set, divided down the middle into two different textures. A doorway was placed high up on the stage left side.

The play title was projected in capital letters on the right side of the back wall. This was a nod to the fact that the title is included in the play text: a rarity in Shakespeare.

The stage itself was bare apart from a small podium whose purpose soon became apparent.

A series of dumbshows set the scene. At first Bertram (Alex Waldmann) appeared in spotlight on the right of the stage while Helena (Joanna Horton) appeared in the upper left doorway looking down at him wistfully. This physical height difference introduced a reversal of the disparity of social levels that posed an obstacle to their romance. But this perhaps also hinted at Helena’s elevated character compared to the compromised nature of Bertram’s personality.

Next Bertram and his friends were partying wildly in a nightclub. He stood on the podium and was joined in his revels by Parolles (Jonathan Slinger). Someone brought him bad news (of his father’s death) and he fell back in shock.

The Countess (Charlotte Cornwell) was seen walking across the back of the stage accompanied by a procession of mourners. Wind-driven snow falling diagonally added to the chilly atmosphere of mourning.

Bertram was comforted by his mother. The action froze at certain points and photo flashes indicated that these moments were being recorded. Helena stood among them in a black armband.

The first scene began as Bertram entered with his luggage ready to depart to the French court (1.1).

His mother the Countess was dressed in black and had a formal gentility slightly at odds with the modern setting. She was full of praise for Helena, but her essay on the relationship between Helena’s innate and acquired qualities (ll. 35-42) was slightly truncated.

Helena wore an elegant pastel dress together with her black armband. She had an air of dowdiness and insecurity that reflected her lowly position and the impossibility of her ambitions. She was not a standard feisty heroine in waiting.

Bertram knelt before his mother, who put the family’s ancestral ring on his finger as she exhorted him to “succeed thy father”.

He said goodbye to Helena, who adjusted his tie. He noticed her interest in this accessory and slipped off from around his neck and gave it to her. This indicated Bertram’s underlying affection for Helena.

Bertram finally departed but struggled to lift his suitcases, abandoning them as the maid (Kiza Deen) came forward and lifted them effortlessly. This was perhaps Bertram’s idea of a joke.

Helena addressed us directly, telling of her sorrow at being in love with Bertram, who was as inaccessible as a star in the sky. She was wistful and dreamy in her longing and seemed to have resigned herself to Bertram being out of reach.

Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles was a sneering, leering inadequate. His long, thin moustache marked him out as affected. His comic conversation with Helena about protecting her virginity saw him offer a useful basic tip: he pointed down at this crotch and said “Keep him out”.

But he insisted that resistance was futile. He cupped his hand as if cradling a baby bump reminding Helena that a man might “blow you up”. This moment in the first scene of the play was mirrored elegantly in its final scene.

Parolles could have accompanied the discourse about blowing up/down with additional gestures, but did not. The focus was on the language. Parolles’ long discourse on the illogicality and paradoxical nature of virginity concluded, to some audience amusement, that it was like “a withered pear”.

Helena was concerned that Bertram would succumb to the temptations of the French court. Her meek acceptance of her social inferiority meant that her fears about him finding love among his equals were very real.

Parolles was summoned to attend Bertram and retrieved a long black jacket from his travelling wardrobe. Helena teased him for his cowardice and her mild taunts struck home, bringing out Parolles’ own insecurities, interestingly also related to his social standing.

Helena admitted to her own insecurities and was honest with herself, while Parolles tried to deny his failings and pretended that they did not exist, covering them over with bluster.

Thus his response to Helena was a hurried “I am so full of businesses I cannot answer thee acutely”. He affected a courtly accent and manners to proclaim “I will return perfect courtier”. This Parolles was singled out as more a social climber than a warrior.

Helena turned optimistic as she hit upon “the King’s disease” as an element in “my project”.

The scene changed to Paris as Greg Hick’s King, his hair long and straggly, appeared in a wheelchair, attached to a drip and a big medical monitor with lots of flashing lights (1.2). Bright fluorescent tubes hung above creating a clinical atmosphere. Soldiers and medical staff stood in attendance.

He briefly outlined the diplomatic situation: Florence had called on him for assistance with their conflict with Sienna but Austria had advised him not to take part. However, young soldiers who wished to fight with the Florentines were free to do so.

Bertram entered down the stage right walkway. The King got out of his chair with the residue of his strength to greet Bertram. The King remembered his father and reminisced about things he used to say. These were obviously very familiar to Bertram, because as the King repeated one of his father’s maxims, Bertram joined in so that the two spoke in chorus to describe youths whose “constancies expire their fashions”.

The exertion proved too much for the King. He faltered and fell back, pleading “Lend me an arm”. His sickness was foregrounded, which suggested his underlying desperation when he referred to Helena’s father and how he would try his aid, having given up on his own doctors.

Back in Roussillon the box room was now lined with plants growing behind glass (1.3). Lavatch (Nicolas Tennant) joked with the Countess about his need to get married, casting lascivious glances at the maid as he spoke of how his “poor body” required it.

He pulled his handkerchief out into a taut quasi-phallic shape saying he was “driven by the flesh”, but then placed the handkerchief on his head like a veil to add that he also had “holy reasons”.

Lavatch’s curious logic, which led him to conclude that “He that kisses my wife is my friend”, gave way to his comically urgent parting gesture that “the business is for Helena to come hither”.

Rynaldo (Cliff Burnett), a picture of formality in his buttoned uniform jacket, informed the Countess that he had overheard Helena saying that she loved Bertram.

The Countess excitedly recognised that “Even so it was with me when I was young”, which prepared us for her positive reception of Helena’s ambitions.

The Countess told Helena that she considered herself “a mother to her”, countering her surprise at this intimacy by pointing out that “choice breeds a native slip to us from foreign seeds”. This plant breeding metaphor possibly derived from her practical interest in the subject, witnessed by the plants growing under glass in the box room representing her house.

As she already knew of Helena’s love for her son, the Countess seemed to relish Helena’s confusion when confronted with the idea that she was her mother and the dire implications if this meant that Bertram was consequently her brother.

Under the Countess’s firm but insistent questioning, Helena admitted to loving Bertram. Her manner showed that she had already discounted the impossibility of this love and the Countess’s presumed disapproval of it.

She also admitted that Bertram was her true motive for her journey to Paris. Helena delighted in her candour in these matters in way that made her sympathetic.

Helena was convinced that her father’s “receipt” would be able to help the King. The Countess warmly embraced her, offering her help and support.

Sandbags

The troops conducted some training exercises, carrying sandbags above their heads and making warlike preparations accompanied by the persistent beat of Parolles’ drum (2.1).

The King watched, reclining inside a transparent open-fronted plastic box. This was like an oversized incubator that had been adapted for palliative care.

The soldiers finished their exercises and knelt before the King who advised them to retain “these warlike principles”, in context referring back to the display he had just watched.

He beckoned them closer and, with a glint in his eye, cautioned them about the wiles of “Those girls of Italy”. He gestured lasciviously when warning them “beware of being captives before you serve”.

The soldiers began to depart leaving Bertram and Parolles behind. Parolles boasted of giving a scar to Captain Spurio concluding “Say to him I live , and observe his reports of me”.

He pointed after the departing soldiers and exhorted Bertram to follow them and to ignore their insistence that he was too young.

The King had transferred back into his wheelchair and found Lafeu (David Fielder) kneeling before him to impart some news. He insisted firmly that Lafeu stand up. This small gesture showed that the King had not abandoned all authority and could still enforce his command.

Lafeu spoke of Helena’s amazing abilities derived from “medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone” and the King reluctantly agreed to meet her.

Helena entered wearing a red coat and carrying a small doctor’s bag which she placed on the ground in front of her as if it were some kind of device in itself, drawing attention to its curative contents.

She mentioned that Gerard de Narbon was her father, at which point the King leaned forward and pointed saying “I knew him” in a way that indicated he was already on the hook.

Helena explained about her father’s “receipts he gave me; chiefly one”. She stood and raised her hands at her side in an open expressive gesture that spoke of her harmlessness and her desire to help. But at the same time she was drawing attention to herself and underscoring her miraculous abilities, in an uncharacteristically confident way.

After the King’s initial refusal, Helena apologised and made to leave. But his questioning of her integrity by claiming that she knew “no art” drew her back. She pleaded that trying her skill would lose him nothing and that assistance often came from unexpected quarters.

The King turned his wheelchair away from her and started to move off, bidding her farewell. Not giving up, Helena grabbed the chair and turned it back to face her, insisting that “My art is not past power, nor you past cure”.

The King was impressed by her insistence and her forceful reorientation of his chair. This was precisely the kind of firm mastery with which he liked to take control of a situation. He exclaimed a mighty “Oh!” before continuing “Art thou so confident?”

He was even more impressed when she promised a speedy cure and staked her life on its success. He made a deal with her that if she restored him she could have a husband of her choosing.

Helena’s confidence here was understated and was driven by her belief in the efficacy of her father’s medicine.

The newly-formed bond of trust between Helena and the King could be seen by the way she placed her doctor’s bag in his lap and wheeled him away to begin her work.

The maid was dusting the plants at the Countess’s residence, as Lavatch told his mistress that he was leaving for the court (2.2).

He introduced his all-purpose rebuttal by describing it as a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks, listing several types before concluding that it fitted any buttock, casting a lascivious glance at the maid’s rear as she leant forward to dust an awkward spot.

Lavatch’s saucy mood continued when he assured the Countess that his answer would fit any question “from below your duke to beneath your [cunt]stable” making an obscene gesture with his cupped fingers as he did so.

His repeated use of “O Lord, sir!” was said in a strained attempt at sounding elevated, which was inherently comic in view of the ribaldry that he had used in the build-up to its unveiling.

The Countess sent him away with a letter to take to Helena at court.

Bertram discussed the King’s miraculous cure with Lafeu, while Parolles stood slightly apart constantly trying to join in the conversation (2.3). Frustrated by his failure to engage their attention, Parolles prodded Lafeu with his stick.

The box room came forward with the King and Helena appearing in silhouette against a bright red background. They faced each other and danced back and forth. Although they did not touch, the dance was characterised by a surprising degree of intimacy. The King emerged and performed capoeira (a Greg Hick’s speciality) making sweeping kicks at the soldiers.

The King was now restored to health, and his hair was shorter and darker than before.

The bachelors (Daniel Easton, Michael Grady-Hall, Chris Jared & Samuel Taylor) gathered in front of Helena. She approached each in turn and rejected them. Lafeu’s comments were cut, which focused attention on Helena’s scheme to work through them and get to Bertram, who observed nonchalantly on the stage left side of the box room.

Helena turned and offered herself to Bertram but he did not realise he was being addressed. Noticing the attention fixed on him by Helena and the others, he looked round comically to see if there was another bachelor somewhere behind him.

When the King prompted him to take Helena as his wife, Bertram’s disdain was extreme. He contemptuously mocked the idea of “A poor physician’s daughter my wife!”

The King’s assurances that he would enrich and ennoble Helena so that she had “honour and wealth from me” did nothing to change Bertram’s mind.

The King was visibly affronted by this impudence. Feeling that his honour was at stake, he barked out a firm command “Here, take her hand” ordering him to obey. The force of the King’s insistence cowed Bertram and also shocked Helena, who looked more surprised at the King than Bertram did.

Bertram obediently took Helena’s hand. The King continued to organise their lives, pausing before declaring that their wedding would be performed “tonight”. This caused another ripple of shock to pass over Helena, who perhaps now was beginning to realise the full significance of what she had done.

Parolles took real offence at Lafeu’s barbs as their bitchy argument blew up. But Parolles bit his tongue rather than act on the revengeful impulses that played across his face rather. He could only issue a conditional threat “Hadst thou not the privilege of antiquity upon thee, -”

Parolles vented his anger once Lafeu had left, promising to beat him if he met him again. He was cowed, however, when Lafeu returned with news that Bertram had married.

Lafeu disdainfully tweaked at the various rosettes that adorned Parolles bright yellow uniform jacket, before leaving him once again.

Bertram was disconsolate at being married. The audience found humour in Parolles’ repeated use of the word “sweet-heart” as he tried to console him.

Parolles encouraged him to leave his wife and go “to the wars”. Bertram agreed and said he would send Helena to his house and depart for Italy. Parolles hugged Bertram ecstatically. He held him close and looked into his eyes moving to kiss him, before checking himself and pulling away in embarrassment. This confirmed the audience’s suspicions about the true intent behind his recent use of the word “sweet-heart”.

Lavatch exchanged witticisms with Helena and then Parolles, who took no uncertain pleasure in informing Helena that Bertram had to leave that night, putting off married life “to a compelled restraint” (2.4). Helena meekly asked what else Bertram required.

Clog

Lafeu tried to convince Bertram that Parolles was just a braggart, continuing to insult him when he came to tell Bertram that Helena was leaving that night (2.5). The audience very much disapproved of Bertram’s “Here comes my clog” when Helena entered.

Bertram gave her letters to take home. She summoned up the courage to ask him for a parting kiss, which he willingly gave her. He kissed her passionately, and she became quite dizzily excited afterwards.

This was possibly her first ever kiss from him and for her the moment was charged with that excitement. She was still quite agitated some time afterwards. However, Bertram’s immediate emotional disengagement from the kiss made it obvious that for him it was simply a tactical move to keep her quiet.

Parolles departed with Bertram, delighted that they were going off to the war together.

After some battle sequences involving soldiers in modern uniform fighting hand to hand, the Duke of Florence (Dave Fishley) spoke to the French troops and expressed his puzzlement that the King of France would not help directly (3.1).

Back in Roussillon the Countess read Bertram’s letter, explaining that he had wedded not bedded Helena and had run off (3.2).

After a brief comic moment in which Lavatch said that Bertram would “not be killed so soon as I thought he would”, two soldiers brought in a serious looking Helena. She read out the letter Bertram had given her in which he vowed that she would have to obtain his ring and become pregnant by him before she could call him husband.

The Countess comforted her, disclaiming Bertram and proclaiming “thou art all my child”.

Helena stood alone and poured her heart out, blaming herself for driving Bertram into the war and wishing that the bullets would “fly with false aim”. She broke down in tears and wished herself dead.

She vowed to leave hoping that this might draw Bertram back again. The interval came on that sad note.

The second half began with Bertram standing centre stage and being sequentially kitted out with military uniform, equipment and finally a gun before running around in the midst of battle.

In a brief scene, the Duke of Florence presented him with a helmet making him “The general of our horse” (3.3). Bertram rejected the helmet but soon changed his mind, declaring himself a soldier rather than a lover. By now he had acquired a facial scar, echoing Helena’s warning in her speech at the end of 3.2 that “honour but of danger wins a scar, as oft it loses all”.

Helena had sneaked away in the night, and Rynaldo read Helena’s letter to the Countess, which explained that she had gone on a pilgrimage (3.4). The Countess instructed Rynaldo to write to Bertram telling him that Helena had left, hoping that he would come back and that Helena would hear of this and return herself.

The box room extended out to show soldiers drinking in the Widow’s tavern (3.5). The Widow (Karen Archer) and her daughters gathered in front to watch the returning army march past. Mariana (Rosie Hilal) got angry at the mention of Parolles, whom Bertram had been using as a go-between with Diana.

Helena appeared in her white pilgrim’s robe and was detained by the Widow to watch the troops together with them. Helena confirmed that she had come from France, prompting the Widow to mention that she might see a countryman of hers. Helena asked his name, causing Diana (Natalie Klamar) to mention excitedly “the Count Rousillon” as Mariana rolled her eyes in disbelief at her sister’s enthusiasm.

Helena was self-deprecating in agreeing with Parolles’ critical reports of her, in a way that indicated she was still full of self-reproach.

They watched the march past, which was not staged, as if it were happening out in the audience. The only one to appear was Parolles, who was heard to mutter “Lose our drum! Well.” and then appeared on the stage left walkway as the women repulsed him with insults and threw things at him, causing him to flee.

The Widow invited Helena to stay with her.

Two of Bertram’s comrades tried to convince him that Parolles was all talk. Eventually they settled on a plan to kidnap him disguised as enemy troops and to get him to betray them (3.6). Parolles was obsessed about the loss of his drum and the others deliberated downplayed its significance as a ruse to encourage him to attempt its recovery.

Bertram bid Parolles “farewell”. His friend placed his finger tenderly on Bertram’s lips to quieten him before saying “I love not many words”. In view of his previous dalliance with Bertram, there was something camp about this physical contact.

As Parolles departed, one of the soldiers loudly riposted “No more than a fish loves water” before they all agreed that Parolles would probably lie about his exploits.

Bertram took one of the soldiers to show him the girl he was after.

The hostel was invaded by troops who made free with the women and revelled in a debauched manner until the Widow strode confidently onto the scene, cocked her sawn off shotgun and fired it into the air to restore order (3.7).

In the ensuing calm, Helena assured the Widow that she was in fact the wife of the count. Helena offered her a purse of gold and explained that Diana should agree to the count’s “wanton siege”, ask him for his ancestral ring, and then let Helena take her place at their assignation.

The Widow’s agreement following Helena’s offer of an additional three thousand crowns was a fine comic moment.

The box room had camouflage netting strung across its front by a soldier as Parolles’ ambush was prepared (4.1). When the use of invented language was suggested, the soldiers practised a few phrases so that we had an idea of how this would work.

The soldiers hid behind the netting and watched as Parolles ruminated on how to account for his fruitless return from his mission to recover the lost drum.

Parolles turned slowly about as he spoke. The soldiers ducked below the top of the netting to avoid being seen when he faced them, apart from one instance where they remained in clear view as he looked right at them until they suddenly realised their mistake and hid.

Parolles took his dagger and poised it above his hand wondering if he should inflict wounds on himself to make his story more credible. But his plaintive yelp when the point merely touched his skin, indicated that this was unlikely.

The soldiers commented on what he said, but although Parolles appeared to hear the question “How deep?” and answer “Thirty fathom” he did not turn around in surprise to look for the voice that had prompted his answer. This suggested he lacked the awareness to realise that he was responding to a real voice.

The trap was sprung and Parolles was blindfolded. The text was altered so that he spoke the names of the languages he could understand in the relevant language, which was an intelligent revision. This is what someone would do when testing for the presence of speakers of those languages.

The soldiers tried to convince Parolles that “seventeen poniards are at thy bosom” as each of them placed two hands and a foot onto his chest to make him think he was being assailed by a large troop.

Parolles whined like a baby as he pleaded for his life. He was taken away and the soldiers went to fetch Bertram.

Bertram turned up at the inn and played the harmonica, singing to Diana “They told me that your name was Fontibell” as if it were a song.

Diana resisted his advances and mocked his promises. She asked him for the ring. He protested that giving it away would be “the greatest obloquy i’ the world” for him to lose. Diana countered that her honour meant the same to her family and proceeded to writhe up and down, rubbing herself seductively against Bertram, who, in some agitation and expectation, blurted out “Here, take my ring”. His mind was changed not by the force of her argument but by something earthier.

She instructed him in the particulars of the clandestine meeting, telling him that she would then put another ring on his finger.

As Bertram left, a messenger caught up with him. Although we did not hear or see any indication of the news, it was possibly the message about Helena’s death.

At the end of the scene there was a brief dumbshow in which Diana handed over Bertram’s ring to Helena outside the box room and then Helena entered the box room which was now the bedchamber.

She sat on the bed and waited for Bertram, who entered the room and felt his way in the dark. He was visibly distressed by the recent news about Helena. He held out his hand and Helena took it. They sat for a while as Helena comforted Bertram, who assumed he was with Diana. They embraced as the box room moved upstage. Its doors closed just as they reclined on the bed.

This touching spectacle showed us Bertram’s true feelings for Helena emerging in the wake of the shock (but untrue) news of her death. The couple consummated their marriage, with each thinking of the other so that they were unified by sentiment, if not by mutual recognition. Bertram made love to his wife without recognising her but paradoxically allowed her to witness his true feelings about her for the first time.

Sadness

The start of the next scene saw two soldiers describing how the letter delivered to Bertram contained sad news: “on the reading it he changed almost into another man” (4.3). But as this was the letter from his mother and that news of his wife’s death was already known to him from the rector, this letter could not have been the one that had triggered his sadness at Helena’s death.

Whatever the order or timing of the letters and news, the staging created the distinct impression that the letter Bertram received was the one that delivered the shock news of Helena’s death.

Bertram explained how he had that night “buried a wife, mourned for her”, suggesting that the news was fresh and perhaps that brought by the letter we saw delivered to him after he spoke with Diana.

Before he returned to see his mother, there remained the unfinished business of Parolles. He was brought forth and forced to stand on a makeshift podium to make a pathetic spectacle of his abject treachery.

One of the soldiers tapped on a portable typewriter to record the intelligence on the Florentine army that he willingly surrendered. To highlight the comedy of this, the typing was random and sometimes involved keys being struck at random only to create the sound of typing.

He was asked about the character and reputation of Captain Dumaine (Mark Holgate) and traduced him soundly with the angry Captain having to be restrained from running at him.

In a wonderful sequence, Parolles insulted the other Captain Dumaine (Chris Jared again), his brother by saying “he excels his brother for a coward…” who ran at Parolles and was restrained by the first. But within the same breath Parolles insulted the first Captain “…yet his brother is reputed one of the best that is…”, so that the struggling pair instantly flipped round. The guardian of Parolles became the aggressor with the previous assailant ,who seconds before had been the attacker, now holding his brother back.

Parolles panicked when he was told that he would die for his treachery. He was even more scared when the blindfold was removed and he saw he had been tricked by his own comrades.

After taunts from the soldiers, Parolles sat on the podium and lamented, removing his false moustache and holding it in his hands to avow “simply the thing I am shall make me live”. The removal of this false disguise marked the first step towards a more authentic way of life.

Helena, the Widow and Diana were on their way to see the King at Marseilles (4.4). She told Diana that she would still have further tasks to perform but assured that “All’s well that ends well”.

Lafeu commiserated with the Countess on the death of Helena (4.5). Lavatch was examining some cacti, so that when he got into his witty exchange with Lafeu he held up a small knoblike cactus to say “I would give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service”.

But not even the great acting in this production could hide the strained nature of some of the exchanges, particularly the one that ended lamely with a reference to “jades’ tricks”. It felt like filler.

Lafeu got back onto the track of his conversation with the Countess to propose his daughter’s hand in marriage to the supposed widower Bertram.

Lavatch brought news of Bertram’s return and that he had a patch of velvet covering a possible scar on his face.

Helena arrived at Marseilles but was told that the King was no longer there (5.1). This gave Helena another opportunity to quote the play title at the Widow and Diana. She gave the Gentleman (John Stahl) her petition assuming he could reach the King before she could.

Parolles was besmirched with dirt both on his clothes and face making him a wretched spectacle as he pleaded with Lavatch to give a letter to Lafeu (5.2). The stains suggested the strong smell that Lavatch insisted Parolles keep upwind of him.

Lafeu finally took pity and promised Parolles “you shall eat”.

The King and Countess sat on chairs in Roussillon and bemoaned the loss of Helena (5.3). The King called firmly for Bertram to be brought before him. His restored health seemed to underscore the positive mood behind his forgiving attitude when he said that “The nature of his great offence is dead”.

Bertram entered and knelt before the King very abjectly in full recognition of his “high-repented blames”. The renewed power of the King was a reminder of his enhanced ability to punish if he so chose.

The King encouraged everyone to move on and “take the instant by the forward top”. He described himself as old, but his determination had a young man’s optimistic vigour.

He asked Bertram if he remembered Lafeu’s daughter. Bertram looked offstage towards her and indicated that “at first I stuck my choice upon her” referred to Maudlin and not Helena. This reading of the speech meant that he told the King that he had first taken a fancy to Maudlin, which made him cast a “scornful perspective” on Helena “she whom all men praised”. But he also admitted that he had loved her once he had lost her.

The King praised Bertram “that thou didst love her”, meaning that he was happy that the young man had loved Helena, but he emphasised that this should be “sweet Helen’s knell”.

It was proposed that Maudlin marry Bertram. At Lafeu’s suggestion, Bertram took a ring from his finger to be given as a love token to Maudlin. But Lafeu noticed that this ring was like one that had been worn by Helena. The King chimed in saying he had also spotted the similarity.

Bertram maintained that the ring had never been Helena’s. Once again the King insisted very strongly that it had been his and that he had given it to Helena. She had told the King that she would either give it to Bertram in bed or return it to the King as a sign she needed his help.

Bertram once again said that Helena had never seen the ring, and that it had been thrown at him from a window. The King ordered him to be taken away.

The Gentleman delivered to the King the mysterious petition signed by Diana Capilet. Bertram was brought back under guard as Diana introduced herself.

She claimed that she was Bertram’s wife and that he had taken her virginity. Bertram dismissed her as “a common gamester to the camp”. Diana countered, showing the ancestral ring Bertram had given her, proving that she was special. The Countess of course recognised it.

Bertram admitted that he had given it to her, but that he had been beguiled into handing it over by her “infinite cunning”.

In full riddle mode, Diana bade Bertram ask for his ring again and to return her ring to her. When questioned by the King, Diana said she meant the one on Bertram’s finger, which was Helena’s via the King.

She insisted that she had given it to Bertram in bed, contradicting his story about it being thrown from a window.

A very nervous and confused Parolles confirmed that he had acted as go-between and that Bertram had slept with Diana and promised her marriage.

The King questioned Diana about the ring but she denied having been given it, having bought it, being lent it or finding it. Confusingly, she denied having given it to Bertram. The King grew frustrated and ordered Diana to be taken away, ordering her execution if she did not tell him how she had come to possess it.

Diana asked her mother to “fetch my bail”, saying of Bertram “my bed he hath defiled; and at that time he got his wife with child”, before heralding the arrival of “one that’s dead is quick”.

Helena loomed out of the box room in semi-silhouette before appearing fully lit in a white maternity dress clutching at a pronounced baby bump. Her grasp here was directly reminiscent of Parolles’ gesture at the start when referring to how a man might “blow you up”. This connected the first scene in the play with the last.

Bertram fell to the ground and scrambled backwards as if trying in vain to escape from this vision.

She came forward and pointed at Bertram’s ring on Diana’s finger and produced his letter showing that all the conditions he had set had been fulfilled, concluding “This is done: will you be mine, now you are doubly won?”

Even at this point Helena had a hint of vulnerability to her as if her triumph was not something of which she felt boastfully proud. This made her sympathetic.

There was a dichotomy between the dramatic impact of her entry, and the modesty of her character that she had retained from the beginning of the play. This adventure had not been a personal journey in which her character had altered: she was still the same person she had been at the start.

It was perhaps this non-triumphant reclaim of him that helped Bertram to love her.

Lafeu cried “mine eyes smell onions” quite pathetically.

The King took charge and delighted in telling Diana that she could pick any husband she wanted.

Despite the King saying that “All yet seems well”, Bertram and Helena stood hand in hand at the end, showing that they were truly reconciled. This meant that the resolution was romantic rather than edged with pessimism.

Conclusions

This perfectly entertaining production added to a list of recent outings of All’s Well that cumulatively pose the question: why is this play performed so little?

The production was chiefly memorable for the performances of Jonathan Slinger and Greg Hicks, which is ironic given that it is supposed to be about the triumph of female wit and ingenuity in the person of Helena. But this was the result of the underplaying of Helena’s heroism so that her victory was a quiet, not a boastful nor an attention-seeking one.

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