Monday, October 24, 2011

Tough Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well & Cymbeline

Ellie Piercy as Helena/Janie Dee as the Countess of Roussillon. (Photo: Nigel Norrington) 

All’s Well That Ends Well provides too many obstacles for a modern audience to be anyone’s favorite Shakespearean comedy, so it doesn’t get revived very often. But though it isn’t a sublime romantic comedy like Twelfth Night or As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, and though it isn’t dark enough to be as provocative as Measure for Measure, I think it’s a beautiful play, and John Dove’s version at the Globe this summer reminded me why I love it. Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s essentially a fairy tale. When the King of France (Sam Cox) is rumored to be on his deathbed, Helena (Ellie Piercy) travels to Paris from her home in Roussillon where she’s the ward to the Countess (Janie Dee) with the medicine bag she inherited from her father, whose medical skills were so elevated they were indistinguishable from white magic. Helena is one of those feisty Shakespearean comic heroines (like Rosalind and Viola) who, with her heart in her mouth, sets out to change her fortunes. She’s desperately in love with the Countess’s son Bertram (Sam Crane), who has gone to the court of France to serve the king, a close friend of his own late father’s. (Dead parents figure importantly in the plot, especially through their surrogates. The King, seeing Bertram’s father in him, assures him, “My son’s no dearer,” though he mostly acts as a disapproving father to him as the plot unfolds. Both the King and the Countess serve Helena in loco parentis.)When she offers to cure the King, whose doctors have pronounced his case hopeless, she stakes her life on the line, but in return she asks him to match her up with any young man in the kingdom. And since this is a fairy tale, her medicine works, and he presents all the most eligible bachelors in the court for her to survey.

In Dove’s production, she dismisses them with record speed and then indicates Bertram as her choice. And the poor bastard is thunderstruck. In many I would guess most   productions of All’s Well he doesn’t even know she’s alive, but here he’s quite fond of her; they grew up together, and in the scene between them before he takes off for Paris he’s playful with her before he kisses her on the forehead and asks her to watch over his mother in his absence. (Piercy makes it obvious that that’s not the kind of kiss she’s been hoping against hope from him.) But she’s the daughter of a poor doctor and his mother’s ward he’s never thought of her as his wife. And he balks at the King’s insistence on telling him whom he should marry. But from the King’s point of view, his honor’s at stake because of the promise he’s made Helena, so he makes it crystal clear to Bertram that if he refuses to marry her he’ll regret it. So the young man makes a pretty and entirely rhetorical speech that places himself in his monarch’s hands and then runs off on his wedding night with his friend Parolles (James Garnon) to join the army and fight in Florence, in a war that France hasn’t officially joined but that the King has permitted his young warriors to serve in if they so choose. (That Shakespeare makes it a war of no special consequence seems deliberate; it undercuts the virtues we might be moved to see in a young man whose motivation is service to his country, not adventure and escape.) Bertram leaves a letter for Helena proclaiming that he will never sleep with her until she can produce the ring on his finger, which bears the Roussillon family crest, and a child fathered by him, an impossibility on the face of it. But Helena has come so far out of love for him that she takes the next extraordinary step: she starts a rumor that she has died, disguises herself as a pilgrim and follows him to Florence, where she persuades a young woman Bertram has been courting, Diana (Naomi Cranston) to agree to bed him if he will give her his ring. What follows is the bed trick, a staple in the dramatic repertoire of Renaissance plays. In the darkness of night, he makes love to a woman he believes to be Diana but who in fact is Helena. Having obtained both his ring and his seed, she comes back from the dead in the final act carrying his child and they live happily ever after.

The problem in this problem comedy is double-sided: why should we cheer on a woman who goes to such lengths to get a husband who isn’t worthy of her, and why should we be happy when she secures him? The play is always in danger of alienating a modern audience from both Helena and Bertram. I think that both sides of this problem are answered in the text, but a good director has to underscore both the psychological realism in Shakespeare’s depiction of a young woman Helena can’t be more than eighteen or twenty who essentially leaps off a cliff after the man she loves and the coming of age that renders Bertram appreciative of the woman he initially scorned out of a combination of wounded pride, indignation, adolescent rebelliousness (he, too, can’t be more than eighteen or twenty), perhaps a little snobbery, and a callow inability to see the value of what’s right in front of his eyes. It’s a real challenge for any director who takes on All’s Well and wants to be true to the play rather than using it to make an ironic and to me, unconvincing feminist point. The real problem isn’t that Helena’s behavior is implausible, but that a character who behaves as she does fails to furnish a suitable role model for contemporary young women. Audiences tend to project onto Helena a wish-fulfillment-fantasy vision of how she should act when the boy she adores wants nothing to do with her, and as a result they’re likely to reject her in a way that they never have to reject Viola or Rosalind, who simply postpone the courtship of the men they love until they can cast off their disguises, or Beatrice in Much Ado, whose bantering relationship with Benedick turns naturally to love once their friends trick them into realizing that they won each other’s hearts long ago.

Director John Dove
If audiences reject Ellie Piercy’s Helena, it’s neither her fault nor the director’s, since there isn’t a scene in this production built around her passion for Bertram that fails to ring true. Like Cordelia with Lear, this Helena is proactive with the rest of the world but her love reduces her to nervous embarrassment and self-effacement: she begs the King not to push her onto Bertram when it’s clear he doesn’t want her, and after they’re married she asks him for a kiss with a tender modesty that breaks your heart. And Crane’s depiction of Bertram is complex enough to allow for the possibility of a happy ending with Helena, while Dove sets up that ending beautifully. As Crane plays him, Bertram’s objection to marrying Helena has little to do with her personally, except insofar as the idea that he should be paired up with a woman beneath his station offends his aristocratic sensibilities. With the King he may take on the role of an obedient courtier, but when he runs off to join the war he’s playing another part that of the macho warrior. He’s led in this direction by Parolles (Garnon gives a splendid performance), who’s the kind of companion shallow, boastful, gossipy, two-faced no kid who’s struggling toward manhood needs. And Bertram isn’t comfortable in the role he’s chosen for himself. When he takes his leave of his bride, he looks agonized, as if a better self were troubling his conscience. She asks him for the kiss, he gives it, and it’s more than he bargained for: it brings out feelings for her that he had no idea he’d harbored. After he pulls away to join Parolles, he lingers, looking after her.

In the context that Dove and Crane have established, Bertram’s interaction with Diana is the kind of thoughtless seduction that young men on their own in war are all too capable of. He makes her promises that he has no intention of keeping, but he’s driven by his erection and by his new image of himself as a carefree soldier; he underestimates her virtue, so when she accedes to his request for an assignation she merely confirms what he thinks of her and he doesn’t think he owes her anything. It takes him a while to figure out who he is and to begin to act as his own man. First his comrades, who have warned him not to trust Parolles, set up a test to prove his unworthiness: they blindfold him, pretend that they’re the enemy and that he’s been captured, and since he’s a coward at heart they easily get him to betray military information as well as to show his disdain for them and for Bertram. From that moment Bertram distances himself from Parolles, but Shakespeare isn’t ready to let him off the hook yet. Arriving back at Roussillon, he finds that the King has sanctioned a second marriage for him with the daughter of the crusty old lord Lafeu (a gruff, likable Michael Bertenshaw). This time he doesn’t make the mistake of challenging the King; he makes one more rhetorical speech, accepting the match and praising the qualities of his intended. But the real test isn’t of his obedience but of his authenticity. Diana and her widowed mother (Sophie Duval) show up in Roussillon, too, suing the King to champion Bertram’s mistreatment of her. Faced with the evidence of his youthful indiscretion, he lies to Diana’s face, claiming that she’s nothing but a camp follower he foolishly bought for the price of his family ring. But the ring she returns to him isn’t his ring at all; it’s Helena’s, a gift from the King, and without his understanding how, Bertram’s lie suddenly implicates him in the death of his wife. It’s Helena herself who has to rescue him, appearing to her astonished friends and claiming the right to share his marital bed since she has acquired both his ring and, she assures him, a child in her belly whom he has fathered. The authenticity we’re looking for from Bertram is in his tears of joy when he sees her again and falls to his knees. We know that this is the real Bertram because we saw his true feelings for her in the kiss on their wedding night and in his difficulty, baffling to his own senses, in tearing himself away from her.

Every performance in this All’s Well has been completely thought through, and the players share that ease with the verse that makes the expertly scanned lines sound conversational. (And they move through the text at breathless speed.) I particularly liked Janie Dee as the Countess because she sounds all the depths of her relationship with Helena. She suspects that Helena is in love with her son, and she isn’t sure at first how she feels about it: she loves Helena dearly, she thinks of her as an adopted child, yet her son is a count and Helena the daughter of a poor physician. So she interrogates her, calling her daughter and judging her discomfort at the implication that this relationship would make Bertram her brother. It’s a test of Helena’s feelings, but also of the limitations of the Countess’s maternal love for her: when she embraces Helena and encourages her, we see that indeed that love has no limitations. We love the Countess, as we love Helena, because of her authenticity. That’s the key note in Dove’s reading of the play.

The cast of Cymbeline. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Shakespeare’s most direct fairy tales are his four romances, and the two with the most convoluted (and preposterous) narratives, Pericles and Cymbeline, are rarely performed. The five-member Fiasco Theater, all recent graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company MFA program, has taken on Cymbeline, which is currently playing off Broadway. The play’s title is an oddity: it refers to the King of Britain, but he’s neither the protagonist nor the center of the dramatic action (like Julius Caesar). Cymbeline is actually about Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, who disguises herself as a boy after her exiled fianc√©, Posthumus, believing her unfaithful, orders his trusted servant Pisanio to kill her. In fact, she’s as loyal as the day is long (Posthumus is persuaded otherwise by a villain who wants to win a bet with him over Imogen’s chastity) and Pisanio knows it, so he lets her go. The plot also includes a wicked stepmother (Cymbeline’s queen, who wants to get her brainless son Cloten onto the throne) and a pair of lost princes who have been raised by another exiled lord whose reputation, like Imogen’s, has been unjustly tainted. The themes of the play are fidelity and slander.

The play’s a holy mess more so than Pericles and the Fiasco company, two of whom, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, also co-directed, are to be commended for keeping the nutty story coherent as well as for the clarity of their work with the verse. The staging is enormously clever and relies on minimalist production values. (Jean-Guy Lecat designed the set.) The key prop is a trunk in which the villain, Iachimo, hides himself so that he can survey Imogen’s bedroom while she is sleeping and steal a jewel from her in order to make his invented seduction of her plausible when he tells Posthumus about it. Brody and Steinfeld bring the trunk into every scene, shifting its meaning, so that, for example, when Iachimo proposes the bet with Posthumus the trunk stands in for the pool table they’re playing on. This is an inspired idea, not just because the presence of the trunk during the wager foreshadows the method by which Iachimo will win it but also because the atmosphere of a barroom (which the directors capture effectively) suggests the macho, alcohol-driven bravado that might stir a young husband to treat his bride in such an offensive manner.

That half a dozen actors perform fifteen roles only Jessie Austrian, who plays Imogen, isn’t double-cast is a playful choice, and for most of the first act the revue-sketch quality of the production is refreshing and enjoyable, though it would help if all the actors were equally adept.(They are all, however, good musicians, so the musical interludes are always charming.) But somewhere in the middle of the act it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be so delighted with the smart-ass, gifted-undergraduate tone of the performance if Fiasco were mounting a play I cared more about. By the end of the act I began to see the limitations of applying this tone even to third-rate Shakespeare, as Brody struggled to render Posthumus’s soliloquy about Imogen’s alleged sexual betrayal emotionally believable and not surrender to that fallback position of young American and English actors, hipster irony. By the second act Fiasco’s showmanship begins to feel repetitive, and in the culminating scene, when almost all the characters are on stage and the actors have to flip back and forth among different personae, the production seems to have jumped ship, abandoning Shakespeare’s play altogether for a spectacle built around the company’s ingeniousness. The real trick in producing Cymbeline wouldn’t be to show us how silly the play is, but to find a way to liberate the feeling inside the tortuous story line to make it count for something. No crew of actors, however imaginative, is cannier than Shakespeare.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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