The joke about All’s Well That Ends Well is, of course that it doesn’t end well at all. Helena, the plucky young daughter of a famous physician, bets everything that she can cure the sick King of France. When she succeeds, he promises, in typical fairy tale manner, to give her whatever she likes in return. She wants Bertram, the son of her Guardian, the Countess of Rousillon. The King even marches a parade of young men out for her to choose from – she is firm. Bertram, a young man who has just struck out on his own, wants no part of this. After being forced to marry her, he immediately flees for the war with his braggy, raffish friend Parolles.
By the end of the play, husband and wife are reunited. But she has had to jump through some fairly humiliating hoops to make that happen, and he is nastily resistant almost to the very end. There is, perhaps, something modern about Helena’s pluck and persistence. It’s certainly welcome to see her take the physician’s role (if only to use it to barter for the role of housewife?), but the object of her affections appears to be an irredeemable lout. So, what price matrimony?
Most men I have talked to about this play despise it thoroughly. I wish I could take a poll. Perhaps the wedding almost at gunpoint is too much, or the united front of wife and mommy. While it’s not my favorite Shakespearean comedy, I think it crosses the line early on and becomes a fairy tale, where nothing is to be taken very seriously.
The Argo recording is remarkably polished. Of the lead performers, only Peter Orr, as Bertram, is an amateur. Ironically, Orr gives the best performance, allowing Bertram’s callowness free rein while preserving his aristocratic poise. Orr is surprisingly fun and effective. As Helena, Prunella Scales is surprisingly not fun – she plays it straight and serious, and curiously enough that ends up being a problem. I can’t fit her into the tone of the play, somehow. Michael Hordern’s masterly King of France is pitch perfect, however. The King’s early speeches are genuinely touching, but he bends his characterization cannily and delightfully toward melodrama in Act V – “I am WRAPPED in DISMAL thinkings!”
As Parolles, Patrick Wymark could turn the crazy up a notch or two. His now familiar mix of bluff indignation and crowing singsong doesn’t actually seem colorful enough, though he’s very funny in the last scene. A lesser actor would give us Parolles truly humbled, truly repentant and downtrodden. Wymark makes it hilariously clear that Parolles has worked up a brand new act and is giving the “miserable wretch who has learned his lesson” everything he’s got for whatever advantage he can take.
All’s Well That Ends Well with Peter Orr, Prunella Scales, Michael Hordern, Margaretta Scott, Patrick Wymark, Roy Dotrice and Max Adrian.