In Shakespearean terminology, a comedy is simply a play that ends more or less happily. After the midpoint of his career, Shakespeare’s comedies tended to be either fantastical — like The Tempest — or disquietingly sombre, like Measure for Measure. All’s Well That Ends Well is another of these “problem plays” or “dark comedies”, and director Caroline Byrne has taken it at its word.
The Globe’s indoor Sam Wanamaker space adheres to 17th-century practice by illuminating proceedings with candlelight only. This time, however, Byrne eschews the overhead chandeliers (except for one brief burst) and uses much sparser floor-level lighting. At one point the 340-seat venue holds barely a dozen lighted candles. Actors routinely carry their own personal candlelighting, which occasionally hampers their movements: the opening of letters by desperate one-handed flapping doesn’t help the dignity of the proceedings.
Byrne’s production succeeds in spite of this, not because of it, but succeed it does. It’s not a cheery tale. Young commoner Helena, by curing the terminally ill King of France, wins marriage to her beloved Bertram, a nobleman who spurns her as beneath him. He weds her but runs away to the Italian wars, saying he’ll never accept her as his wife until she produces the ring he’ll never part with and shows him a child of their unconsummated marriage; she manages this by dint of swapping places with an Italian woman he’s been casually wooing. In a subplot Bertram’s sidekick, Paroles, is revealed as an empty braggart who’ll sell anyone out at the drop of a scarf.
Ellora Torchia is a grimly determined Helena, Will Merrick’s Bertram a disdainful brat from the word go; their final (re)union is one of those silent moments one sees so often in stagings of the problem plays, but which seldom come off as this one does. Imogen Doel easily dispensed with my initial reservations about cross-casting the part of Paroles, and the whole is neither fun nor illuminating (ha), but bleakly compelling.
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