This week took me back to Stratford for a performance of All’s Well at the Festival Theatre.
The play turns on the premise that a country lass, Helena, orphan daughter a medical doctor of great renown, manages to save the King of France’s life using the most revered of her father’s potions. For this, she is rewarded with her choice as husband of any man in the King’s power to command. Of course, she picks the one real idiot, Bertram, a young lord who thinks she is far beneath him and not worthy of his attention. Although the marriage is enforced by the King, Bertram is off to the wars in Italy, never to return until Helena can win the ring from his finger and carry his child, difficult feats at the best of times over long distances. But it’s Shakespeare, and there’s always a way involving disguise, seduction and the wooing of the fool with his own ego.
There is much to like in this production directed by Marti Maraden who was briefly part of the troika of Stratford artistic directors who succeeded Richard Monette. Much to like, but not to love.
Daniela Vlaskalic struck me as a rather one-dimensional Helena, and she doesn’t get to do much more than pine and plot. Even the plotting depends as much on luck as skill, and one can’t help wondering how Helena managed to be in exactly the right place at the right time. As the clever daughter of a doctor, one would expect her to show great skill and intelligence (I can’t help thinking by comparison with Kate in Shrew), but that’s not how Vlaskalic plays Helena.
Jeff Lillico as Bertram is saddled with an unsympathetic role from the outset. He thinks he’s hot stuff even to the point of defying the King’s wishes (a chorus of “off with his head” would have ended the play rather too soon), and despite his behaviour, the King lets Bertram go off to war rather than settling down with his new wife. When we see Bertram in his military guise, he’s a good if somewhat misguided leader with a friend, Parolles, whose swagger disguises a complete lack of military skill or daring. Helena does manage to get both ring and child, and in the end Bertram is properly contrite. He may be a lord, but it’s his generals who know what they are doing. Fortunately, peace breaks out.
The real strength of this production lies elsewhere.
Martha Henry is the Countess of Rossillion with the majesty that Henry can muster, but here muted both as Helena’s surrogate mother and as a friend of the King. I can imagine Martha Henry eating poor Bertram alive for his impudence, but that’s not her role.
Brian Dennehy, in his first Shakespearean role (!), is the King of France. He’s rather avuncular, and as we first see him, weary of those who cannot relieve his medical problems. Once cured, there’s strength, but used sparingly. I liked Dennehy’s reading of the part, although by the end of the performance he had slipped into a somewhat more natural delivery than suited his role.
Stephen Ouimette is Lord Lafew, the King’s right hand man. He echoes Dennehy’s genteel manner, but tells us much of his private thoughts about other characters with looks rather than words.
Finally, Juan Chioran as Parolles the braggart is a delight. He is completely full of himself, but easily undone after a mock capture by his own company. Ever helpful to the “enemy” he quickly gives a complete and unflattering assessment of his compatriots. This is a wonderful role for any actor, but it should not overshadow the rest of the play as it does here.
In all, this All’s Well took a while to get off the ground, and had delightful spots. A production worth seeing if you’re in Stratford for something else, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.