Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 7. 1969.
Drama — All's Well That Ends Well
All's Well That Ends Well
It Did, and it was.
This piece, originally a novella from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, freely translated by William Painter and even more freely adapted for the stage by William Shakespeare, has made no-one's reputation.
Indeed the critics have been reduced to seeking approbation for it from such diverse sources as Charles I, who apparently laughed at Parolles, and G.B.S., who fell for Helena—a dubious distinction for any woman. Even "Q", the most plausible of romantic critics, threw in the sponge at the end of the fifth round—it was "one of Shakespeare's worst" and "a thing of the 'boards'."
The actors themselves have had little use for it. Of an sill-star cast at Drury Lane in 1742, Peg Woffington (Helena) fainted on the stage, Milward (the King) caught cold and died, whilst Colley Cibber, characteristically stealing Parolles from Macklin, who was fobbed off with the Clown, stored up an unprofitable harvest of professional rancour. The Kembles, all three of them, had little success, and it was left to the Bensoniuns, the Old Vie and the Stratford companies to stage an odd performance to round off their tally of the canon.
The play, then, may be considered fair game for the producer to display his virtuosity. While the old stagers of his company do their rather dreary best to invest gnomic verse with sound and sense the comics may be given their contemporary heads, the theme of virginity be modishly flourished and discounted, the less endearing traits of the young people given an approving emphasis, what time there are all the fascinating gimicks of presentation— symbolism, setting and switchboard—with which to play.
This facile course was not for Dick Johnstone. He had his fun, of course. A mimed and tenebrous interment of the late Count of Rossillion, by way of prologue, struck the note of tragi-comedy sustained throughout the play, while on a lesser plane an executive-style mobile throne rotated for the fistula-stricken king. But his approach was a frontal attack on the mechanics of the plot, played out in a bare permanent set with as many doors as a Palais Royal farce (and accordingly why that one purposeless entrance from the back of the auditorium?). Thus it was possible for the action to proceed without interruption from France to Florence, from palace to palisado, though sharp contrast was drawn between the court scenes, played by the principals against a series of posed friezes by the supers (which would have been much more effective with split levels) and the drum sub-plot, from which stole faint and disparate echoes of Mere Courage, the fourth act of Cyrano, and the affair at Gadshill.
The cast battled gamely with Shakespeare on an off day. Like Homer, they spake out loud and bold, and with intelligence and conviction. All that was missing was style, which is not acquired easily.
The brunt of the performance falls on the women. Helena, (Hilary Campbell) in her quieter moments moved with grace and revealed an innocent charm reminiscent of Portia in her one feminine moment:
"You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am ... an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractic'd".
Unfortunately Helena was none of these, but a predatory pre-Shavian heroine out to get her man at all costs. To become tolerable this must surely be played as high comedy—as Beatrice in reverse. Miss Campbell—or Mr. Johnstons—did not see it like this. The Countess (Lynne Howden) despite being kept on her poor feet for interminable periods—palaces in France were apparently devoid of all furniture save three desperately uncomfortable chairs—sustained her age with dignity, shedding a maternal compassion with serene impartiality wheresoever the plot directed it. Diana (Pat Webster)—so inappropriately christened—played an improbable and dubious role with great spirit, and her mother, the widow Capilet (Geraldine Wayte) whose moral values were even more doubtful, gave a life-like impression of Sybil Thorndyke about to embark on Hecuba.
Of the men, Bertram (Hamish Tristram) who would have been hired instantly by Benson as a Horatio doubling as full-back, resolutely shouldered his burden of arrogance and caddishness and grimly did what he was required to do. The king (Alick Shaw) had some noble moments in infirmity, but failed to get away with his ineffable fifth act line—"I am wrapped in dismal thinkings." He was inclined to over exercise a tremendous voice, as well as sprightly limbs, after treatment by Helena. Lafeu (Philip Brew) resisted the obvious temptation to out-Polonius Polonius—but little can be done with "Charles, his friend" roles, particularly when Charles is an aged countess.
What so charmingly used to be called the ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble, the spear carriers and ladies in eternal waiting, were well disciplined, though the men were less well spoken. The climate of the French court was remarkably egalitarian, and the Lords and Ladies showed a curious tendency to burst into manual applause like the Moscow Politburo after laying down the party line. However, on the field of battle—of Florence or Athletic Park—the rucking was first rate. The appearance of what was obviously the remnants of a Greek chorus in the streets of Florence was rather startling, but a word of respect is due to the two young ladies who adorned the windows of the court with such decorative immobility.
This leaves us with Parolles and Lavatch, the Clown. Parolles (Paul Holmes) would scarcely have had Charles I splitting his sides: in effect, except in the drum scenes, he threw away most of his lines—which in any case are scarcely worth preserving— and in so doing produced an odd and most successful characterisation—by Iago out of Falstaff. Indeed he claimed our sympathy in his disgrace, and that takes some doing.
And so for the Clown, Lavatch (John Banas). Here was a memorable performance indeed—a splash of Harlequin colours, now huddled and observant between players and audience, now spinning in graceful mime across the stage, a symbol of life and death—Feste as Granville Barker saw him, or the Fool in Lear—but no Clown. It was beautifully and unobtrusively done.
The play was austerely costumed—a mixture of Carnaby Street and the starship Enterprise. No ornament—narry a belt, sword or brooch, and poor Helena was put into a sort of Kate Greenaway gown, which gave her a lovely line but the embarrassment of bare arms with never a trinket or furbelow on which to anchor them, save an early artificial and obtrusive rose. No Dame from Stratford would have stood for it. This was odd but not so odd as the revitalised and pjama-ed king, who might have sat—or rather stood—for Watteau's "Gilles".
Finally a word of appreciation for the musical linkage and background. Composed by Robert Love, beautifully played, impeccably recorded and tactfully relayed: a Dolmetsch-like consort for the court scenes, and Variations on the Last Post for the camp—perhaps more evocative than they should have been.
And a post-script. Although "All's Well" may contain far too many of the lines Shakespeare should have blotted, and though the ethical values of its characters be as inconstant as the Wellington weather, this production showed that it still has a vitality—a panache—to be sought in vain in the kitchens, closets and attics of our angry young men and their petulant following. But then—
". . . we are old, and on our quick'st decrees
The 'inaudible and noiseless foot of time Steals...."