Nineteenth-century critics condemned Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well
as “really exceptionable,” “exceedingly gross,” and “indelicate even beyond the limits usually conceded to Elizabethan dramatists.”
Despite the expurgation of banter, bed tricks, and all the deliciously smutty puns, for centuries the play languished as all but unplayable. No record of its production in the 17th century exists, while the 18th logged only 51 performances, and the 19th just 17. Our own century has bested these numbers, but only a few stagings (by Tyrone Guthrie, John Houseman, and Trevor Nunn) have received anything like acclaim.
Credit Theatre for a New Audience for not shying away from several of Shakespeare’s stickiest plays. Recent seasons have featured Pericles and Cymbeline, as well as 2005’s wildly successful Measure for Measure. But in All’s Well That Ends Well, director Darko Tresnjak has his work cut out for him. A brief summary: Physician’s daughter Helena (Kate Forbes) magically cures the king of France and he rewards her with her choice of a husband. She picks young Bertram (Lucas Hall), who announces he doesn’t want her and never will, unless she gets from him a ring he never removes and gets herself with child by him as well. With the marriage unconsummated, he leaves to fight in Italy. Helena follows him. Via stratagem and the occasional bribe, she gains ring and child, and perhaps a husband in more than name.
Dr. Johnson once sighed, “I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity and young without truth,” but Helena’s character proves the more recent problem. If older generations rebuked her for unfeminine activities— ambitious desires and dogged pursuit—it’s now feminists who might raise objections. As Helena alternately pines and plots for the dangerously immature Bertram, you long to take her out for cocktails and slip her a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You under the table. Forbes is luminous in the role and the action flags whenever she’s offstage, but she can’t quite render credible Helena’s love for Bertram (no matter how lovely Hall’s golden curls).
Amid David P. Gordon’s Edwardian set (both grave and flashy) and attired in Linda Cho’s elegant costumes, Helena moans that “I know I love in vain, strive against hope,/Yet in this captious and intenible sieve/I still pour in the waters of my love.” The production doesn’t lack for love or care. The performances are thoughtful, as is the design. But Tresnjak never convinces us that the lovers belong together—or if they don’t, of the dread consequence of such a misalliance. Can all really be well when a play ends so ambivalently?