NT Live's Alls Well That Ends Well

I was at the Shakespeare Theatre a couple weeks ago, along with other bard devotees, for the second installment of NT Live, the National Theatre’s broadcasts of current productions live via satellite to cinema screens around the world. The first screening, that of Phedre, starring Helen Mirren, was referred to as an experiment. National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner wasn’t sure if it would work as theatre or as film. The glorious production of Phedre did work, and the drama and excitement of it came across even on screen. So the National Theatre decided to give it another go, with Marianne Elliot’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well. That second screening proved that this venture is worthwhile, and this blogger hopes the National will continue, though my wallet disagrees.

Being one of Shakespeare’s less popular “problem” plays, All’s Well was not sold out like Phedre. That was too bad, since this was a smart, well-done production, and the best of the three that I have seen. Director Elliot imagines All’s Well as a fairytale, with fairytale characters, and fairytale ending … or perhaps not. Textually the concept works quite well. The poor Helena is in love with a Count Bertram, a man far above her station. There is a sick old King that no one can heal. Helena undertakes to heal the King, hoping that this will prove her worth to Bertram. She is successful, the King promises her any man she wants to marry, and she chooses Bertram. This is where the fairytale goes wrong. Bertram is horrified, but forced by duty to submit. After the wedding he runs off to the war in Florence, telling Helena that he will never be her husband unless she can get the ring from his finger and his baby in her belly. The plucky heroine sets off to achieve just that. At the end of the play Helena and Bertram are reunited, to live … happily ever after?

The fairytale concept does seem to come on a little too strong. But my guess is that is because of the screening, and it does not feel that way live. First of all there were interviews before the screening where some of the choices were explained. The result was that these design elements (like the red cape) came off as too obvious because we knew to look for them, rather than figuring out their resonances on our own. Also, the production had projections on the set – scary looking trees, owls flying on and off, etc. The use of cameras made these a stronger presence that they would have been in a live theatre, and thus they looked a bit ridiculous.

Michelle Terry plays Helena as a plucky, but awkward heroine. Not the kind you would expect in a fairytale, and I think that’s the point. She’s a bit ungainly and plods around the stage. Her determination and resilience in spite of this makes us root for her all the more. George Rainsford is a foolish, yet sympathetic Bertram. His youthful looks really work in the character’s favor. He seems like just a boy being pushed into a life he’s not ready for. Clare Higgins is an excellent Countess of Rossillion, both severe and maternal, capable of playing despair and joy. Finally, Conleth Hill is the best Parolles I’ve ever seen. I don't usually like this character or his entire subplot, but I very much enjoyed him in this production. Hill portrays Parolles as a peacock of a braggart, always flipping his hair over his shoulder and smirking at the audience.

And I quite loved Elliot’s staging of the end. The “lovers” are reunited, and there is a giant fairytale party, everyone running around the stage, laughing and smiling, pictures being snapped. Helena and Bertram are necessarily swept up in it all, and they take hands smiling at each other. But then they turn their faces to the audience, and both of them have these moment of realization that they are now stuck with the other person, and then look of “Oh shit, what have I gotten myself into” crosses both faces, before the production blacks out.


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