Shakespeare’s unusual dark comedy is recommended for those who enjoy having their expectations challenged, particularly when it comes to the nature of good and bad behaviour.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” features a central female character, Helen (Jessica B. Hill) who is ingenious, magical and by contemporary standards obsessive. The play’s narrative backbone is her extraordinary romantic pursuit of the nobly-born but indifferent Bertram (Jordin Hall). This involves her curing a dying king (Ben Carlson) in exchange for Bertram’s hand and pursuing her new husband to a foreign country during wartime where she tricks him into consummating their marriage by pretending to be the woman he’s now courting (Allison Edwards-Crewe).
This is a pleasing feminist flip of other Shakespeare plots in which it’s a woman who has no agency in choosing her mate. But it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why Helen remains so devoted to a man who rejects and betrays her. It’s such aspects that make the play a “complicated riddle,” as director Scott Wentworth writes in a program note.
Wentworth doesn’t try to solve the riddle by changing the ending or having the characters offer commentary through their performances on the ways they behave. He places the play in an historical period — the era of the First World War — that allows for lavish costumes (designed by Michelle Bohn) and arresting moments of stagecraft, and guides a company of actors in expertly acted and spoken performances.
The production opens with a visually captivating scene of a funeral, with a row of top-hatted men holding black umbrellas as the Countess of Rossillion (Seana McKenna) and her son Bertram throw white roses through a trap door onto the unseen casket. Here as throughout, it’s the placement of bodies under Louise Guinand’s precise lighting that creates a compelling stage picture with actors wheeling set pieces — such as street lamps and a drinks-cart — on and offstage to indicate locations (Bohn is also the set designer).
McKenna commands attention as a matriarch barely suppressing her emotions as she buries her husband, sends her son off to the king’s court and recalls the death of a beloved physician which left Helen, his daughter, in her charge. The luminous Hill is captivating in the intensity of her adoring gaze on Bertram, who’s clearly fond of her as a sort-of adoptive sister but doesn’t see her as a woman. Hall has a gorgeously resonant speaking voice and convincingly conveys Bertram’s frustration at his lack of personal independence, setting up his rebellious move to join the foreign conflict.
André Sills as the sexton Lavatch ably undercuts all this aristocratic stiff upper lip-ism with bawdy commentary, and his exchanges with McKenna are one of the production’s highlights — two masters of stage presence battling wits. Wayne Best is also impressive as the arch nobleman Lafew, who provides a bridge between the Helen-Bertram story and a comic subplot involving Parolles (Rylan Wilkie) who accompanies Bertram on his travels and gets himself into trouble through his pomposity. Irene Poole and Michael Blake are great fun as soldiers who fool Parolles into thinking he’s been captured by the enemy by improvising a fake foreign language.
Kim Horsman and Edwards-Crewe as mother and daughter are lovely foils for Hill’s Helena as she crafts the play’s most difficult-to-digest plot twist, the bed trick by which she finally gets her man. (It was a relief to me that this is not actually staged.)
At points the production so invests in reverential pageantry that it risks camp, particularly in the Act 1 closing scene involving hymn-singing, suitcases filled with stage mist and a strikingly lighted tableau of uniformed soldiers. It’s esthetically pleasing to a fault, in that it seems to prettify armed conflict.
It is to the credit of the excellent ensemble’s capacity to invest in the material that the final recognition scene does bring resolution, despite the extremes reached in order to make it happen.
It all does end well, against all odds.
All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare, directed by Scott Wentworth. Runs through Oct. 8 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, 111 Lakeside Dr., Stratford. Stratfordfestival.ca and 1-800-567-1600.
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