All's Well That Ends Well Play | Sport For Jove

Director's Notes

All’s well that ends well, still the fine’s the crown; Whate’er the course, the end is the renown”

 

In other words, the end justifi es the means. If you can get the thing you most desire, good luck to you, who can condemn the path that got you there? It is a challenging question this play throws up, and a fitting riddle for a modern world where winning is everything, and at any cost. Thankfully, and typically, Shakespeare doesn’t answer the moral equation for us, nor does he expect us to agree with Helena’s shameless pursuit of her desire, he simply presents a very psychologically detailed study of obsession and the ambiguities of ‘honour’, both in the bedroom and on the battlefield, and leaves us to make up our minds.

 

There is not a more modern vision of the vagaries of sexual life and relationships among Shakespeare’s plays. Sex in this play is discussed very frankly and seen from the female perspective, which is wonderfully rare in plays of the period.

 

It is characterized throughout as a form of ‘warfare’. Virginity is a fortress under siege and, conversely, a weapon of resistance, and the tactical skirmish starts in the first act with Helen asking Parolles for “military” advice on how to protect her womb from men’s advances, while privately preparing to “lose her city” to Bertram’s siege. From there, the play takes a group of men to war, but the circumstances of that conflict - its causes, its purpose, its justification – are given no significance whatsoever, instead using it purely as the backdrop for a gender firestorm in which a group of women become the most powerful enemies these soldiers could face. It could equally have been called ‘All’s Fair in Love and War’.

 

Shakespeare, as always, builds a symbolic motif that I think is as ingenious and sustained as any other he creates in his more popular plays – the soldier losing his drum, the heartbeat of his masculinity. As in his epic poem Venus and Adonis, the great warrior, Adonis, obsessed only with warfare and the hunt, is pulled from his horse by a horny Venus and forced to deal with the far more uncertain and beguiling world of love and sex, where he is completely out of his depth. It is a motif very common to classical art and literature. In many great paintings, Mars, the Roman God of War, is characterized as losing his drum, his great symbol of war, to one of the gods or goddesses of Love (Venus/Aphrodite/Cupid). Shakespeare, always inspired by the truisms of ancient myth, converts this idea into a play – a group of men, who name Mars as their symbolic ‘captain’ (“This very day, great Mars, I put myself into thy file, and I shall prove a lover of thy drum”) go to war and literally lose their ‘drum’ somewhere in the field. Its symbolic absence breaks their unity and leaves them in a no man’s land of love and sexual politics, losing honour and ground everyday and earning shame and confusion in its place. And indeed, the French army’s divisional flag or ensign was traditionally a drum, like the Roman eagle etc, their talisman. Shakespeare is an extraordinary employer of symbols.

 

SEX IS WAR IN THIS PLAY…

 

The over-arching story is of a young woman’s overwhelming physical desire for a young man and the extraordinary lengths she will go to have him. “The hind that would be mated by the lion must die for love”, she warns us in her first soliloquy. It’s a provocative image. The clown, Lavatch, is an unusual fool figure and an abstract mouthpiece for the play’s major subject - sex. He, quite accurately, boils the whole story down to “Tib’s rush for Tom’s forefinger”. ‘Tib’ was a generic name for a young woman, with the double meaning of ‘whore’; ‘rush’ is both the amorous hurry toward that forefinger and a rudimentary Elizabethan wedding ring fashioned from reeds – the ‘ring’ thereby being the place where the woman will be penetrated by the man’s finger. Bertram, the owner of the desired ‘finger’, wants none of Helena’s sex, seeking instead to awaken his manhood on the battlefield. “War is no strife to the dark house and the detested wife”, he says. When he reaches Italy and tries to bed the beauty, Diana, she gives him a riddle - “on your finger in the night, I’ll put another ring” – in other words, ‘you will think it is me you are penetrating, but another ‘ring’ will be placed upon you’, both in literal terms as a jewel he will receive, and metaphorically, Helena’s vagina. It is raw and ribald stuff, and like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, sets the tone for this play’s darkly cynical and realistic portrait of sexual desire.

 

Parolles, the play’s other grotesque mirror to honour, names the sexual conflict with equal frankness when he says,

 

To th’wars, my boy, to th’wars!

He wears his honour in a box unseen

That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home

Spending his manly marrow in her arms,

Which should sustain the bound and high curvet

Of Mars’ fi ery steed.”

 

(‘box unseen’ again means vagina and ‘marrow’ the essence of manhood and its connotations. ‘Kicky-wicky’ was an abusive term for a wife. So, he tells Bertram, we should be riding hard into battle, not blowing our loads in bed)

 

Even the names tell us something – Helena, after Helen of Troy (a battle that Lavatch sings of in the play), is another beautiful woman who made a soldier ‘lose his drum’ for the dangerous enticement of love and sex, and turned a love affair into war. Diana, usually depicted in a fountain or font, a motif Shakespeare riffs on in the play, is named after the goddess of chastity, the ultimate symbol of the power of virginity. It’s a role she  embodies very clearly in the play, luring Bertram to bed while remaining cunningly chaste herself. Bertram, means, literally, ‘bright raven’ – in other words, an oxymoron - ‘bright blackness’. The raven was a symbol of wisdom, Bertram’s journey is anything but. As his name suggests – he is a bright young thing and a black young soul all at once, on a painful journey toward some form of wisdom. Parolles, (meaning ‘words’ or ‘many words’), is of course the perfect moniker for the braggart who is all talk and no action. Just as cleverly, the older generation are not named at all. The King and the Countess of Rousillon, (whom George Bernard Shaw described as the “most beautiful older woman’s part ever written”) are symbols of older more stable world orders, stricter moral codes of honour and justice. They will spend the first two acts of the play asking their younger peers to live up to those codes and to the imposing shadows of their fathers. Of course, the young fail to do so. The King, like Bertram though, is a paradox, seemingly generous and ethically admirable, he resorts to raw power to underwrite his belief in those old codes of honour and morality. We are left to wonder if power and force can ever sit comfortably with honour and integrity.

 

Shakespeare sees the mileage in this tension and places the focus on two human impulses that continue to confuse us today: ‘honour’ in relation to the sexual act, and ‘honour’ in the act of armed conflict. We have tried to focus our production very specifically on those battlefields.

 

STAGING THIS ‘PROBLEM PLAY’…

 

This play is barely ever performed. It’s discouraging reading its historical record – a litany of condemnations of its insignificance, implausibility, lack of memorable characters and storytelling faults, not to mention its sexual content which kept it too racy for many generations. On most of these points, I disagree wholeheartedly. And having had the reasonably rare experience of actually working on it with a group of actors, it is unquestionably a fascinating and incredibly rewarding play, uniquely provocative in fact. If it fails to translate that way in performance this week, this production is at fault, not Shakespeare’s play. This is clearly a piece of work written by the same master who wrote Hamlet, As You Like It, Macbeth, Othello, Measure for Measure etc in much the same period (like Twelfth Night, sometime between 1600 and 1604). Interestingly, many of those critics across the literary centuries who’ve damned it to oblivion confess to having never seen a production, which surely casts a fairly long shadow over their judgement – it’s a play, not a book.

 

With such a rare gem then, we thought it pointless to find a neat historical period in which to house it and explain away some of its challenges, ie. that it can only work in the hackneyed Victorian setting which it is often given. We decided to treat it as an entirely modern work, as if written yesterday, attuned to the frankness and modernity of its treatment of sex and futile military conflict. In it, an older generation argues with the shifting and apparently rudderless value-system of the younger generation, the younger reminds the older that learning and growing up mean making mistakes and, for better or worse, those mistakes are ours to make. Helen’s is the very voice of modernity. She believes an individual, even a young woman, can carve her own destiny, and unlike almost every Shakespearean character, she succeeds in her objectives. Her verse and prose are remarkable for their eloquence and intelligence. A fundamental reason why we are looking at Twelfth Night and All’s Well in rep is the agency and eloquence of their two female leads. Viola and Helena are peerless in their ability to ‘persuade’ those around them, to enchant with their verbal music.

 

Adding to its modernity is the nature of the war these boys are sent into. It is a conflict of uncertain justification with no clear right and wrong, and the deployment of troops is part political, part economically driven, with both sides calling for France’s aid. It has a very topical complexity and suits the modern soldier, deployed not as a Great War Digger to fight a desperate war of national survival, but as a professional career combatant, like our troops in Afghanistan or recently in Iraq. As modern documentaries and dramatized series depicting these Middle-East conflicts illustrate, many a ‘generation kill’ breed of soldier is itching for the fight and despite the extreme dangers and agonizing stasis of modern warfare, very high percentages of soldiers coming home take the first

opportunity to return to their compounds for another tour of duty. As the play says, these boys are “sick for breathing and exploit”. Edmund, playing Bertram, made an interesting observation in rehearsal of his young mates who have been recently engaged in Afghanistan, mates who have encouraged him at times to “dip his toe in the water” with the army:

 

There are no clear benchmarks for boys to become men anymore”, he said, “we just slip through that transition, even 21st’s don’t mean anything, we’ve been pissed since we were 17 and it’s just another licensed booze up. And our wars today are jammed in between sports reports and celebrity gossip stories on the news, which suits our generation so spectacularly. We can dip our toe in the water with the army today, have a look at what it’s like to go to a war for a period. It is so different to our previous understanding of war, and must carry a very different motivation or individual reasoning for each soldier who signs up.”

 

The play at every turn then offers a deliberate lack of moral certainty. There is no compass to tell us what is right and wrong. Its most famous lines are up there with Shakespeare’s greatest and define this ambiguity:

 

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if not cherished by our virtues”.

 

We all exist in no man’s land, capable of great goodness and great ugliness. There are no heroes and no villains – there is only compromise and ambiguity. Shakespeare, yet again, was way ahead of us and our Breaking Bad’s and Soprano’s. When Bertram rejects Helena, many of us will despise him, as Samuel Johnson did:

 

a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate…”

 

He particularly sickens some of us by rejecting her on the grounds of her lower class, but in having the courage to tell her, and the King, that he simply doesn’t love her, does he not show integrity? He then decides that if she cannot have his heart, she cannot have his body either. Some of us feel for him and despise her in this moment, others will sympathise with Helen’s love for him. This paradox of empathy is central to Shakespeare’s intention in the play - we are “good and ill together”, a “mingled yarn”.

 

Antoinette and I have taken our design lead from the possibilities of a young man’s ‘bed’ - the bed Helen dreams of calling her own – the grand and imposing four-poster of a modern young man, a wealthy count. The entire story, of desire, of war, of forgiveness and miracles, explodes from her imaginative relationship with that bed, morphing it into many shapes on her journey toward sharing it with Bertram. We felt it suited this play’s simplicity and directness of storytelling, it does not deal with myriad themes like many of his works, it is powerfully focused on a mere few. A sexual scandal in the national defence force becomes the plays central plot point, a strangely topical matter for this country, but in this case it is the women who are turning the tables. And the marriage we witness at the end has none of the simplistic shallowness of a typical romantic comedy, even by Shakespeare’s standards. We swallow Hero’s marriage to Claudio in Much Ado, despite the fact that they barely know or trust each other because they look right and belong together under the rules of romantic storytelling, likewise many other young lovers in the comedies.

 

What is certain is that Helena and Bertram know each other, warts and all, by the end of their traumatic story. They have known each other like brother and sister before we even meet them, they betray and deceive each other wilfully and at great personal risk, they make the first and greatest personal ‘choices’ / ‘mistakes’ of their young lives in relation to each other, and they face the act of growing up through a brutal recognition of the responsibilities of their situation. By the time we are left with their “happy” ending, at least we know these two have their eyes open, they have seen each others capacities for deceit and selfishness, and some of the many hurdles that leave modern marriage statistics in such disarray have already been laid out or leapt over. It is a cynical, ambiguous, fascinating, and strangely real relationship – despite Shakespeare giving it all the unlikely plot qualities of a fairytale.

 

MIXING FAIRYTALE WITH REALITY…

 

A young maiden with miraculous powers of healing, wins a husband through a King’s prize, enjoys an extraordinarily coincidental meeting with her lost husband in Italy, pulls off a ‘bedtrick’ designed to solve his cruel riddle, and stages a final resurrection and pregnancy to fulfil their journey. The fanciful nature of the plotting has been one of the much criticized features of this neglected play – but it is absolutely Shakespeare’s intention to embody the story in such unusual and heightened ways, and therefore of great value to seek to understand why. Shakespeare liked staging theatrical ‘miracles’ and thrived on dramatic twists. As with The Winter’s Tale or Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Portia plot in Merchant of Venice, he endows a fairytale structure with all the psychological detail and three-dimensional depth of a realist work, using transparently contrived situations simply as a means to put characters under extreme pressure and observe their darker, most spontaneous and surprising impulses. It is strange that the scene in All’s Well where Helen is offered a chance to choose her husband from a meat market of available male bachelors is one of the moments of the play so vehemently ridiculed by academics and critics as being far fetched or too perplexing to be believed in. Are they kidding? Look at Shakespeare’s other works! We’re so over-familiar with Shakespeare’s popular classics, performed ad infinitum, that we fail to recognize how equally far fetched they are. Midsummer Night’s Dream is premised upon a young girl being threatened with legal execution if she keeps Lysander as a boyfriend. Yet we typically set the play in contemporary society and don’t bat an eyelid at this absurd plot point. Shouldn’t the setting be the strictest imaginable religious fundamentalism, just to justify the story? We accept without a second thought that Portia, a supremely intelligent young woman of independent thought and feeling, will be married through a choice of three caskets of gold, silver and lead according to her father’s will; or that old Lear will bring his kingdom to total cataclysm because one of his daughters didn’t answers his questions satisfactorily; or that Hamlet finds out about his fathers death through a ghost; or Brutus loses his mojo before his most important battle because Caesar’s ghost visits his tent; or that the evil Duke in As You Like It is changed by entering the magic forest; or that Hermoine can be presented to her husband as a statue after 16 years ‘dead’; or that Othello is allowed to take his wife to the front lines of a military campaign just because he wants to.

 

Shakespeare thrived on contrivance, unapologetically, and used it to cut to the chase – what will these characters do and what eruptions and transformations will take place between people under these extreme circumstances? So as you approach some of the ‘strangeness’ of All’s Well, consider that an equal strangeness and unlikelihood exists in all of his plays, we are just familiar to the point of entirely ignoring them. It has been exciting therefore to work on an ‘unknown’ Shakespeare where these oddities carry their original estrangement and theatrical sense of fun and fiction. How refreshing also (surely!) to see a group of men face a woman’s choice of marriage partner and subsequent punishment if they refuse? The gender role reversal adds to the strangeness Shakespeare wants us to embrace. Suck it up boys, it has been women’s lot for centuries. And if such things are far fetched, then they were remarkably prescient of modern reality television and its hugely popular vehicles such as The Bachelor – an entirely contrived situational tension designed to do what Shakespeare was doing, place people on a hotplate and see how they dance (but with better dialogue).

 

The other essence of the ‘fairytale’ in this very realist drama is the presence of its most important word … ‘if’. The word ‘if’ is used dozens of times in the play to preface almost every important exchange and becomes the coda to our understanding of the climax. The King says - “All yet seems well, if it end so meet” and “All is well ended, if this suit be won” - conditional qualifiers that leave us to ponder the truth of the play’ title.

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Reviews

"All’s Well That Ends Well is a play with poignancy, romance, connivance, manipulation and belly-laughs. It’s long, but expeditious, in these expert and loving hands."
"This is theatre that makes the pulse quicken and the extremities tingle. This is soft kisses, hard bodies, bloody battlefields and dark investigations of the nasty and inexplicable human soul; what we want, what we need and what we will do to get them. This is Shakespeare."
"Clever, witty and contemporary, All's Well that End's Well is Shakespeare as you've never seen it but how you'll want to see it again and again."
"Fast-paced and surefooted, Ryan’s production sits very well in this cavern of a theatre. You can imagine it playing at London’s Globe Theatre and knocking the crowd for six."

Cast & Crew

Cast

Diana of Florence
Parolles
Lafeu
Mariana of Florence
King of France
Spurio / Duke of Florence / Lavatch
Countess of Rousillon
Violenta of Florence

Crew

Set Construction
Director
Sound Design/Videography
Assistant Stage Manager
Fight Director
Assistant Stage Manager
Set Construction
Stage Manager
Lighting Designer

Venues / FAQ’s

York Theatre, Seymour Centre

The York Theatre is the largest theatre in the Seymour and has a seating capacity of 788 in a semi-circular, amphitheatre configuration, featuring a thrust stage.