by Lynn on July 19, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, until Oct. 29, 2022.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Scott Wentworth

Designed by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound designer, Paul Shifton

Choreographer, Adrienne Gould

Cast: Sean Arbuckle

Peter M. Bailey

Nigel Bennett

Wayne Best

Michael Blake

Ben Carlson

Jon de Leon

Allison Edwards-Crewe

Jordin Hall

Jessica B. Hill

Kim Horsman

Hilary McCormack

Seana McKenna

Irene Poole

André Sills

Ryland Wilkie

And others…..

A thoughtful, beautifully created production about finding one’s way, growing up, facing the truth and finding love.

The Story.  Bertram is the son of the Countess Rossillion whose husband has recently died.  Helen is the orphaned daughter of a renowned doctor who worked in the court of the Countess. In a way the Countess raised both Bertram and Helen. Over time Helen came to love Bertram as a future husband. Growing up, Bertram looked on Helen as a playmate, but not as a wife. Because Bertram’s father has recently passed away the King of France became his guardian. Bertram had hopes of going to see the King to get permission to then go to Italy and enlist in the service of the King of Florence. The King of France wanted Bertram to wait another year. This did not sit too well with Bertram.

At the same time, the King of France suffered from a debilitating fistula that none of the court doctors could cure. Helen felt that with her father’s tutelage in medicine she could help him. She went to the court, cured the King and as a reward was told she could choose her husband from any of the courtiers there. Helen chose Bertram. Bertram was aghast and refused. Was it because she was not of the same class as he was? Was it because he wanted to chose his own wife? Was it because he was not ready to marry? No matter. The King was adamant that Bertram and Helen marry, which they did, but Bertram ran off before they could consummate the marriage. He left a cryptic note that said when she got a sacred ring off his finger and became pregnant by him, she could consider him her husband, the implication was that these two things would never happen. Helen was not to be deterred. She set off after Bertram to change his mind.   

The Production. Director Scott Wentworth has envisioned a spare, elegant production. To that end designer Michelle Bohn has lined the thrust stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre with 12 beautiful matching chairs. One could imagine them in the Countess’s (Seana McKenna) dining room.

Michell Bohn’s  costumes are somber but rich looking—since the Count Rossillion has recently passed away, the whole court would still be in mourning, hence the somber costumes. In the case of Parolles (Ryland Wilkie), Bertram’s foppish, blustering, older companion he is dressed in flashy colours with contrasting colored sashes and ribbons. As Parolles, Ryland Wilkie postures and preens until he gets his comeuppance.  

The play is about the folly of youth (hello, Bertram (Jordin Hall) and the wisdom of the older characters (the Countess and the King of France (Ben Carlson)) who do their best to guide the immature folk to grow up. It’s about the maturity and patience of Helen (Jessica B. Hill) to show Bertram the error of his ways in thinking she is not worthy of him. In a tangential story, there is the character of Diana (Allison Edwards-Crewe) who Bertram tries to compromise but in a bit of trickery, doesn’t compromise her. As Diana, Allison Edwards-Crewe stands her ground when facing Bertram. Could one be sexist and say that the young women in the play have more maturity and smarts than this privileged, immature, irresponsible young man? The play does argue the case.

And there are echoes of other plays in All’s Well That Ends Well. The Countess Rossillion gives Bertram sound advice as he sets off for the Court of the King of France:

                                    “Be thou blest, Bertram! And succeed they father

In manners, as in shape! thy blood and virtue

Contend for empire in thee, and they goodness

Share with thy birthright! Love all, trust a few,

Do wrong to none; be able for thine enemy

Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend

Under they own life’s key; be checkt for silence,

But never taxt for speech….”

As played by Seana McKenna, the Countess is loving to Bertram. She obviously will miss him terribly. She is not hectoring in her advice but is thoughtful, gracious and is trying to pass on the wisdom of being a decent human being, mindful of his father as a perfect example of how to behave in the world. There is a quiet, compelling grace to this Countess as played by Seana McKenna.

Compare this sound advice with that of Polonius (in Hamlet) to his departing son Laertes:

                                    …There, my blessing with thee,

And these few precepts in thy memory

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportioned thought his act:

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;

….Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry:

This above all, to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the days,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

This advice is sound too, but because Polonius is frequently depicted as a silly man, we are more mindful of his silliness than the intelligence of the advice.

There are echoes of the immature, young nobleman and his buffoon older friend in both All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry IV, Part 1. In All’s Well That Ends Well Bertram is devoted to the unfaithful buffoon, Parolles, a posturing, posing Ryland Wilkie. In Henry IV, Part 1 Prince Hal is devoted to the blustering buffoon, Falstaff. In both cases, the young men mature and realize they were dazzled by their flashy and funny older friend, and come to their senses.

The real strength of this production is the acting. Bertram seems such an immature young man, but as played by Jordin Hall there is a courtliness in his bearing that adds a layer to the performance. Again and again Bertram is given an opportunity to do better, but gives in to temptation and lying—his refusal of Helen, his denigrating the character of Diana. But there are so many other people around him with intelligence who do have faith in him, that we can’t discount him outright.  Only when he is faced with the terrible consequences of what he has done to Helen does he grow up and be worthy of Helen.

Jessica B. Hill gives her performance of Helen a maturity and regal bearing. This is a wise, thoughtful performance of a character who is intellectually nimble and able to think on her feet. Ben Carlson plays the King of France with a furrowed brow full of the pain of that fistula, but also mindful that he is the King and has to conduct himself as a ruler, no matter how sick he is. When the King is cured, Carlson is robust, energetic and forceful in his decisions.

Lavatch is the Sexton and a comic character. As with any comic character in Shakespeare they speak the truth. As Lavatch, André Sills gives such a brash, bold buoyant performance that it shimmers with energy. The comic truth is spoken with conviction and without apology. Sills’ acting with the elegant, regal Seana McKenna as the Countess Rossillion is to watch two masters sparring with barely concealed delight. Stunning work.   

Comment. All’s Well That Ends Well is one of those problem plays that often makes you wonder if indeed it did end well. Under Scott Wentworth’s careful direction and his committed cast, there was no doubt in my mind.

Stratford Festival Presents:

Playing until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: Approx. 3 hours, (1 intermission)

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