'All's Well That Ends Well' by William Shakespeare

Onstage at the Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival

Andre Sills and Seana McKenna. Photo by David Hou

Joe Szekeres

A great deal to unfold in ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’

In his Director’s Note, Scott Wentworth writes: “All’s Well That Ends Well’ is a complicated riddle, maddeningly simple, hysterically sad and heartbreakingly funny. Rather like life itself.”

And there is a great deal of unfolding of meaning on my part to connect Wentworth’s comments regarding this ‘All’s Well’ set during the First World War according to the Festival website.

It has been a long time since I read the play during my undergraduate years, so the programme plot synopsis and contextual notes were most welcome. The play is classified as a comedy with problems to be solved. ‘All’s Well’ is not as complex as some of Shakespeare’s tragedies but, like any good theatre, you’re going to have to pay close attention to details in the dialogue.

The simplicity of Michelle Bohn’s design struck me immediately. I saw ‘Richard III’ at the Patterson last month and the set design was detailed boldly to suggest a car park/parking lot in England where the bones of the king were discovered. For ‘All’s Well’, it’s a bare stage with 12 chairs surrounding the perimeter equidistant from each other. That’s it.

And it works for me.

We meet Helen (a doe-eyed Jessica B. Hill), the orphaned daughter of a renowned physician, who is in love with Bertram (Jordin Hall), the son of her guardian, the Countess of Rossillion (Seana McKenna). The Countess is in favour of the match; however, Bertram is not as his focus is a forthcoming military adventure. He departs to Paris to the court of the King of France (Ben Carlson) from where he will then proceed to Italy and enlist in the service of the Duke of Florence (Sean Arbuckle).

Helen travels to Paris as well and knows the King is suffering from a painful malady of a fistula that has not been cured yet. She offers to treat the King with one of her father’s late remedies, agreeing to forfeit her life should she fail. If she is successful and the King is cured, Helen is to be rewarded with her choice of husband.

When the King is cured, Helen claims Bertram’s hand in marriage even though he is annoyed at being forced into an unwanted union but cannot defy his King. Bertram, therefore, submits to this marriage which cannot be consummated as he is off to the wars in Italy accompanied by his cowardly follower Parolles (an audacious performance by Rylan Wilkie)

Jessica B. Hill charmingly captures a true-to-life portrayal of a woman who understands what it is she wants in her life. Hill truthfully keeps her emotional levels understated which allowed me to focus on the words in her speeches. As her intended, Bertram, Jordin Hall carefully maintains that same emotional control just like Hill. No shouting matches on top of each other are necessary as these skilled artists simply allowed the words to indicate their emotional levels.

As the Countess, Seana McKenna regally commands the stage in her role as sage advisor and compassionate guide. McKenna is also moving in her reaction to a letter that is read to her following the interval. A master class of emotional response in listening.

Much of the humour in this production stems from Rylan Wilkie’s work as the overdressed braggart soldier, Parolles. Wilkie’s comic timing remains once again understated as he doesn’t have to push for the laughs but instead allows the words in the dialogue to resonate. A group of soldiers fighting with Parolles and Bertram in the French army in Italy decide to trick the former through comic means. They pretend to be foreign soldiers ambushing and taking the loudmouth hostage. Ultimately, the soldiers threaten to ‘torture’ Parolles and he gives away information about the army to his fellow soldiers not realizing they are his fellow soldiers.

Scott Wentworth’s creative vision as the director focuses on ensuring ‘All’s Well’ speaks to a modern twenty-first-century audience. Is he successful on this account?

I believe he is.

In his Director’s Note, he calls the play one of consequences, scars, sickness, healing and love. Some heady issues for a comedy and a play of problems to be solved.

And why as a theatregoer should I care about this story today? Have I learned anything about human nature in the twenty-first century thanks to this production?

Wentworth believes this play is one of hope, of paradise lost and the cost of paradise regained.

Coming through these last two years we humans have had to maintain that sense of hope and there were times when we must have all felt lost and wondered if the world we once knew will ever return.

That world we once knew is now long gone. That one is not going to come back.

But we can follow the words of advice from the Countess in the first act of the play:

Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use and keep thy friend
Under thy own life's key: be cheque'd for silence,
But never tax'd for speech.
Some valued lessons for a twenty-first-century audience.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

The production runs to October 29 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

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