January 19th, 2008

All's Well that Ends Well

She's a doctor's daughter with an obsessive personality and a magical way with fistulas; he's a callow young aristocrat with exceptional military skills and an abusive attitude to women- together they fight crime. No, of course they don't- but they do make a pretty weird couple. 

Bernard Shaw loved this play. He thought Shakespeare was having a go at being Ibsen- or even Shaw.

Charles II was under the impression that the title of the play was M. Parolles. Parolles isn't the best thing in it, but he's the most familiar thing, the most comforting thing- a big, blowsy, comic character of the kind that lets an actor shine. All's Well has never been popular. When it has been staged (which is rarely) it has usually been adapted to shift the embarrassing love story to one side and make Parolles the star.

A recent production turned it into a  vehicle for Judi Dench as the Countess of Rossillion. Interesting- and again an evasion. 

The formula for Shakespearian comedy is silly romantic story + realistic psychology + dirty jokes. Sometimes it works a treat.
All Shakespearean comedies- all the great ones anyway-  contain elements designed to make the audience squirm. This one is just squirmier than most.  The heroine is a stalker and the hero a total bastard- and we're supposed to identify with them?

But Bertram isn't really so strange.  In fact most  men are a lot like Bertram.  And perfectly decent and intelligent young women like Helena fall in love with them anyway.  And pursue them unscrupulously and think they're a catch.  

Put aside the contrivances of the plot and what we've got here is the truth about love. 

What a fearsome play this is- 400 years old and we're still afraid of it.  We may now be grown up enough to cope with the blinding of Gloucester and the hanging of Cordelia but we still can't look Helena and Bertram in the face.