Judging by this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, younger stage producers have not entirely lost interest in Shakespeare’s best known plays. The programme lists productions of Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado about Nothing and no fewer than six of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the less famous are not ignored: there are also four versions of the implausibly gory Titus Andronicus and two of the “problem play” All’s Well That Ends Well.
The latter in particular has raised its profile within the last few years through productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, so I thought it was high time I found out about it.
The plot is based around the love of Helena, a doctor’s daughter, for the higher-class Bertram, and about the association of these members of the Spanish state of Rousillon with the King of France. It includes confusions over identity, exchanges of rings and practical jokes. So in some ways it has similarities to Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice.
Definitely at the conventional end of the spectrum was Elijah Moshinsky ‘s production for the BBC, part of the project to screen all of Shakespeare’s plays between 1978 and 1985. The design of the production was clearly based on paintings of the 17th century, such as Vermeer or Rembrandt, in line with the inter-disciplinary interests of the then series producer Jonathan Miller. The full text was used, and the pace was slow and precise, which did often bring out nuances and depths. One intriguing directorial touch, pointed out by Alistair Nunn, is the physical intimacy of the scene between the ailing King of France and Helena, who is reputed to have inherired considerable healing skills from her late father. Perhaps part of Helena’s cure for the royal illness is sexual intercourse, suggests Nunn!
A familiar modern take on You Tube is an outdoor production by California-based Shakespeare by the Sea in 2013, screened by a local TV station. Period costumes and performances in a lively if broad fashion.
In Edinburgh this month, Fusion Theatre’s approach was more maverick. The play’s locations moved from Rousillon and France to the kingdoms of Tesco and Asda, thus justifying a design of casual clothes, portable shelves and shopping trolleys. A lot of startling physical movement was employed. Frankly, it did not always illuminate Shakespeare’s text, but it certainly did work in showing the shifting desires of Bertram for Helena and Diana, and also in the fight to trap Parolles, which ended up with him blindfolded by shopping bags and with head and shoulders trapped in an upturned shopping trolley.
The uses of the title phrase within the play perhaps point to its reputation as one whose conclusion is not entirely happy. Helena uses the phrase after she has successfully carried out a “bed trick” with Diana’s paid cooperation in order to sleep with Bertram, and, later, when she arranges for the King of France to see the letter which will reveal the trick. However, at the end, the King suggests only that “all yet seems well”. He seems to foresee that the relationship between Bertram and Helena, built on deceit and manipulation, is doomed to failure.
My own feelings were more positive: amazed that it has taken me so long to read or see the play but delighted to have now made its acquaintance.