The Taming of the Shrew, and now comes indooors to the Swanamaker for a play that belies its title of All's Well That Ends Well. Byrne's production includes the unusual credit of Ben Ormerod as "candle consultant," and perhaps the consultation was over how few candles they could get away with in the playhouse - only two of the chandeliers get lit, and then only for a single scene, with a few small candelabras and handheld candles doing all the work of lighting the action. Fortunately things aren't so murky that it becomes difficult to see what's going on, but they are murky enough to take us into the slightly nightmarish world the play's two leads find themselves in.
Helena (Ellora Torchia) cures the King of France (Nigel Cooke) of a seemingly incurable illness, and is promised the husband of her choosing as payment. She chooses Bertram (Will Merrick,) the new Count of Rossillion, whom she's been in unrequited love with all her life.
But the fact that the King now orders their marriage doesn't make the idea any less abhorrent to Bertram and he refuses to consummate it, running away to a foreign war and informing Helena that he'll only be a real husband to her if she completes two impossible tasks. Having been unable to take a lifetime of not noticing her as a clue that he wasn't interested, Helena inevitably fails to take this hint as well, and with the support of Bertram's mother the Countess (Martina Laird) she sets out on a mission to fulfill the conditions: To wear the ring he never takes off, and bear his child despite his refusal to sleep with her.
All's Well That Ends Well falls into any number of definitions of a Shakespearean Problem Play including the original one, of not fitting easily into the category of Comedy or Tragedy. The First Folio put it into the Comedies but Byrne unambiguously places it into the Tragedies, or perhaps a less rigid definition would be as a dark fairytale. That's not to say the production doesn't have a few scenes that manage to be very funny (Paige Carter as Bertram's lust object Diana has a no-nonsense quality that contributes a lot to this) but then a lot of the straightforward tragedies also contain a lot of humour in them so that doesn't derail the overall effect.
A more nuanced way the play is problematic is in just how exactly we're supposed to get behind its central couple, and the story's drive to bring them together: Not only are they clearly a bad match but they're individually pretty hard to like. Byrne deals with this by uncompromisingly showing us their scars, literal and psychological. The play puts them through the wringer and their unreasonable behaviour is a result of this: We're reminded from the start that they're both still grieving their fathers, the opening tableau's candles including two in the shape of death masks. The opening scenes have had much of their early interaction cut so that Helena doesn't really appear to know Bertram except as a distant love object, so her failure to read the signs doesn't tell against her so badly. Once the King betrothes them she's horrified to realise she's trapped the man she loves in a marriage he doesn't want, and Torchia suggests she begins to mentally crack - she's suspended up into the flies before the interval, returning after it much the worse for wear, on a desperate and unhinged mission to somehow fix the problem she created.
The scenes of Bertram at war are often played as some kind of extended stag weekend but this is much more honest about what he's chosen rather than marriage: The soldiers are permanently encrusted in blood, and behind the bluster Merrick's Bertram is in pain from many scars, as well as having got a teardrop tattoo to mark the deaths he himself has caused. The play's climax becomes a nightmare of deadly accusations he doesn't understand, in which context his disavowal of Diana makes sense as a desperate play for survival.
Imogen Doel, fast becoming a specialist at gender-swapping Shakespearean comic characters, plays the cowardly dandy Paroles, and again there's a darker interpretation at play here. With the pronouns kept male she cuts a gender-ambiguous figure and her white-faced Paroles is a grotesque, ghostly fop who's downright sinister from the start. On the other hand, thrown into a pit when the other soldiers turn on him, his being tricked into revealing his true nature is less Falstaff-lite fooling, more shades of Malvolio's brutal gulling. By the end of the play everyone acts as if everything really has worked out for the best but I was particularly aware this time that Helena's rape of Bertram has resulted in a child - my thought at the bows was that child was going to struggle being brought up by two deeply damaged parents. The only times I've seen All's Well really feel like a Problem Play is when it attempts to treat its leads as a regular sparring couple. When there's a strong concept applied to it - whether it be Marianne Elliott's Tim Burtonesque fairytale, or now Byrne's Jacobean tragedy with seams of black comedy - it reaps rewards.
All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 3rd of March at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.