Richer on the stage than on the page. (Or: get thee to a cinema tomorrow night!)
The Globe Theatre is doing a wonderful thing. For a few nights, scattered through the autumnal months, they’re releasing recordings of their last season’s shows, to be played in cinemas all over the States, greater UK areas, and Australia/NZ. For all my Americans: this starts tomorrow. It starts with their 2011 production of All’s Well that Ends well. See it.
Take a moment. Check the list. Find the one nearest you. Put it in your schedule. See this show.
See this show because they’re doing something important, doing this. Because they’re letting you in on something geography-locked, making it as accessible as possible; they’re taking something confined to one little theater on the South Bank of the Thames and making it three continents bigger. The performances are onscreen, lucid and wonderful, to bring the words to life for you, location regardless. You can leave with the play reinvented for you in performance, as it should be—the words off the page, transfigured three-dimensionally into thoughts. You can see it even though theater tickets are usually too expensive and plane tickets are quite out of the question. See it. Plays are meant to be performed. The fundamental difficulties of theater involve accessibility and posterity—how do you capture the performance after the actors have bowed and exited the stage? how do you give it to people who aren’t there to see it?—but technology’s given the theatrical community the tools to start solving them. See it. See everything you can that they’re willing to give you, because the more you see, the more they’ll keep giving us. Take, until it becomes commonplace. Take advantage of this wonderful opportunity because a) it is a wonderful opportunity and b) if we just take enthusiastically and communally enough, maybe it’ll become the standard. Or a standard, at least.
More theaters should be doing this. But right now we have the Globe, which is one of the best theaters we have, one of the most engaged with the material and with the community. The Globe is a fundamentally communal place: I’ve seen every show I’ve seen there standing on the ground and in the thick of a joyous, reactive crowd. The cinema can’t replicate the three-dimensional physicality of watching actors at arms’ length, but it does give you the offering of the crowd. See it. Surrounded by packed human warmth, see the words become what they’ve always intended to be.
See all the shows they have—I’ve heard nothing but good things about their Much Ado about Nothing, and Doctor Faustus has Doctor Who bait Arthur Darvill as the devil. Dirty secret: I’ve not seen those two. But I’ve seen All’s Well that Ends Well.
My God. See All’s Well that Ends Well.
What I’ve said about letting the words come to life—well, it’d be worth fuck-all if they came out wrong, wouldn’t it? And All’s Well that Ends Well isn’t strictly an easy play. It’s a problem play: one of Shakespeare’s gray areas, one of the ones that refuses straightforward genre classification, neater than his romances and sadder than his comedies, without the body count for tragedy or the legacy pretensions of history. All’s Well that Ends Well is closest to comedy, close enough to touch; it’s comprised almost exclusively of comedic thematic beats (romance, marriage, runaways, wordplay, hints of magic if you look too close). Those themes just happen to come coupled with funerals and sadness and emotional inequalities verging on the desperate and one bastard enigma of a male lead.
“Problem play” tends mean two things, too: grey areas and structural unsoundness. They’re my favorites, these plays (Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Troilus and Cressida are the most pertinent other examples), but they’re also Shakespeare’s most consistently sloppy. It takes work to do them well; done well, they are wonderful, but it is a director’s and cast’s responsibility to make the play better than it is on the page. In the case of All’s Well, the text is comedic cut with melancholy, clever and driven by one of Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines, but there’s also a gaping hole in the text. Its name is Bertram. Let me explain.
All’s Well that Ends Well, in plotty brief: Helena, poor ward of the Countess of Rousillon, loves Bertram, the Countess’s son. Helena wins the king’s favor and gains the right to choose a husband of her choice. She chooses Bertram. Bertram rejects her outright. He is ordered to marry her, but promptly buggers off to the wars, leaving Helena behind with an ultimatum: he’ll not treat her as his wife until she gets his ring off his finger and his child in her womb. From thence, pastiches of comedic action occur. Helena wins in the end through the comedic-standby help of a bed-trick—swapping nighttime places with the girl he’s wooing on campaign—and a fake death. The play ends with their uneasy reunion. She wins. They’re married. All’s well?
Bertram is caddish, but more than that, he’s nearly a textual vacuum. The text he gets is petulant and angry, without a great deal of thought behind it. One can extrapolate reasons for his outrage—people tend to lean heavily on classism—but they’re not really provided in the play on the page. He’s simply not that interior. Meanwhile, Helena is one of Shakespeare’s richest heroines, one of his most passionate and forthright, with agency to spare. (“The fated sky gives us free scope,” she tells the audience in her first soliloquy, “only doth backward pull our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.”) We want better for her, reading it, not only because we’d like her to be happy, but because she’s so full and he’s so empty. It’s a difficult play because she gets implicated if he is left empty—as desperate, as delusional—and it’s on the actor to give him flesh.
He gets flesh here, thought to spare. It is one of the most satisfying things I have ever seen.
Let me tell you again: the problem plays are my favorites. They get some of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters, they are a genre engaged specifically with language and knotty sexual politics, they are strange and marvelous and there is something wrong with every single one of them. Structurally. Objectively. They offer themselves up as astonishing raw material, with the caveat that if you choose them—to direct, to enact—you are volunteering to fix something that needs fixing. They need clever cuts, smart direction, and smart, smart actors.
The Globe’s All’s Well has these in spades. The script is astonishingly tight, the direction coherent, and the actors utterly committed. And there’s nothing, nothing that fulfils their promise quite like the execution of Bertram here, and of the relationship between Bertram and Helena. From the beginning, the pair of them (played by Ellie Piercy and Sam Crane) are given little moments, wordless and physicalized and somehow making private room even in crowd scenes. Bertram snatches a handkerchief from her breast to dry her eyes in the first scene. He will carry that handkerchief with him throughout the play, hands active with it even when he determines that he will not love, that he loves another, that he has never loved his wife one bit. They are emotionally present with each other: Helena in words, Bertram in body. His lack of articulate emotional language becomes a directorial choice. Indeed, it’s a fundamental part of who he is here: the performance of Bertram in this play is a thesis on masculinity in crisis. He feels small in his father’s footsteps as familial scion, the girl he loves wordlessly goes and sets all the terms before he can articulate his love as a choice, and he goes off to play at soldiers because he’s been told that’s what men do. The cut of the text here finds the language for all of this, whether eked out of him or drawn in from around him. Indeed, the performance’s thesis comes out of his mouth: when he goes off to war, he prays to Mars to “make [him] but like his thoughts.” In so doing, he can become “a lover of thy drum, hater of love”—what he thinks he should be.
In clarifying Bertram, it’s not just that they’ve fixed the show’s male lead into three dimensions, or even that in so doing they’ve made the show’s catalytic central romance understandable. Make me but like my thoughts runs through the bloodstream of the play. Helena speaks her thoughts aloud to the audience so that her actions follow: “My project may deceive me,” she concludes at the end of the first scene, “but my intents are fixed and will not leave me.” Parolles, the soldier-popinjay who is the show’s central comedic force, is an exercise in overblown language to disguise empty intent. Even the show’s mere clowns—Lafeu, Lavatch—are overblown textually-conscious wordsmiths. Both the comedy and the drama is engaged with language as action, then: of speaking your thoughts and then being the thing you say you are because you’ve said it. The play, in short, coheres. Perfectly. It doesn’t divide itself along internal genre lines. Its comedy foils its drama, and vice versa. It’s all just good text in a way that it wasn’t before. Not “good in spite” but good.
The caveats that are there on the page have been surmounted simply by thinking through the play, by directing it intelligently and acting it passionately. (There’s not a false note in the cast. Not Ellie Piercy’s sparky Helena, who gets the Helena dream of having a play as good as her character; not Janie Dee’s luminous and sly Countess, infinitely more alive than I’ve ever seen another Countess bother to be; not James Garnon’s puffed parti-coloured charismatic-in-spite-of-his-nonsense Parolles; not Michael Bertenshaw’s precise comedic inflection; and the Globe needs to never let Sam Crane out of their sight—he has this irritating knack for role-defining performances on their stage. Bertram never knows what to do with his hands because his actor knows just what he’s doing with his hands.) It should always be this simple. You choose the play, and you make it not just what’s on the page but what it’s meant to be when you take it off-page.
The reward of a play done right is catharsis. Comedies offer laughter, tragedies offer tears, and problem plays laugh at you and leave you in queasy, confused places that refuse to do either. But there is catharsis here: not in laughter, necessarily, but in joy. The joy that comes when words and thoughts finally line up, when the person you want to be becomes the person you need to be, when you are right with the world, when performance gives way to truth. The play—this production—leads you through every possible verbal maze in every possible direction, but no matter where you look you come out on the side of truth and of revelation. Truth is catharsis. It’s all the more gorgeous here because it feels so earned.
I saw this play on a summer’s night with partial background knowledge (had seen the “are you meditating on virginity?” dialogue at a comedy gala, had done Helena’s monologue as an audition, had remembered to put Bertram on my list of Worst Boyfriends in Shakespeare). I left with the text ringing in my ears. I followed up the performance by sitting down with the play in my Complete Works, eager to unknot the intricacies I remembered from the mouths onstage. Guess what? It just wasn’t as good.
That’s as it should be, I think.
Make me but like my thoughts. The thoughts of the production are on clarity, and they have made the play what they thought it could be. And it’s revelatory. And now it’s in theaters.
See this show.