The 1980 BBC adaptation of Alls Well that Ends Well.
Elijah Moshinsky seems to have imagined this as a sequence of seventeenth century Dutch interiors. You walk with the camera from Rembrandt to Vermeer, from Vermeer to Hals, and then back to Rembrandt. The production dates from a happy age when television still sought to emulate theatre rather than film. Here is Celia Johnson (yes, Celia Johnson of wartime railway station forbidden romance fame, the one who had those Brief Encounters with Trevor Howard) in a big ruff, being exquisite as the countess. Samuel Johnson thought the Countess was the best ‘old lady’ role in all of Shakespeare, and with Celia Johnson intoning the lines, he seems vindicated.
Peter Jeffrey, who did oh so very very much stuff in his day, is Parolles. He’s very good, of course, but I found myself wondering if something isn’t lost by having a Parolles who is a generation older than Bertram, indeed who is clearly a generation older than any of the young lords who have run off to the Italian wars? but Jeffrey is especially good in his torture scene, which is as chilling a depiction of someone collapsing in the face of imminent death as you’ll find in all of Shakespeare, and his delivery of the wonderful ‘simply the thing I am shall make me live’ speech is profoundly moving, and it its own strange way, redemptive.
I have a fondness for Parolles because many years ago I played him in a student production that featured Olivia Williams as Helena. We knew, even then, that Olivia Williams was destined for bigger and better things and we were all a bit in awe of her. There’s a quality to Parolles… he’s ludicrous, perhaps contemptible, but somehow impossible to hate. Unless perhaps it’s me playing him…
Donald Sinden is Donald Sinden. His King of France is full of jowly noises. He plants a kiss on Helena so as to seal the terms of his medical treatment which feels completely bizarre and creepy yet utterly inevitable at one and the same time. Michael Hordern is a familiar and reassuring presence as Lafeu. He has a strange grounding effect. You know where you are with Michael Hordern. And Valentine Dyall is employed ins tiny ambassadorial role. That booming voice of doom, very selectively applied, has the effect of rushing everything towards its climax. It’s not so much a performance as tolling bell.
In in the role of Bertram, the least appealing ‘leading man’ in all of Shakespeare, we have Ian Charleson, one of the greatest actors of his generation – a courageous and a good man, taken from us by AIDS while he was still absurdly and unfairly young. His Bertram is, as he had to be, cold and unsympathetic, but somehow fragile enough to admit the possibility of love. His final reconciliation with Helena is hanging on an ‘if’. In the end we admit the possibility of Bertram’s redemption not because he’s won us over but because Helena’s ingenuity and perseverence persuade us that there must be something in Bertram that nobody else can see. He can only be seen in reflection. (There’s good strategic use of mirrors in this production.)
Angela Down plays Helena as someone who emerges out of the wallpaper to become one of the most compelling female physicians in English literature. She plays Helena as someone who has spent her life watching and listening, storing up experiences and reflections and expertise. She has existed as nobody, yet a peculiar energy has been simmering and a life of extraordinary adventure suddenly beckons. She’s like France’s Burney.
But what a strange play it is, after all. Eh? Isn’t it? Watching it again, I was struck by quite how many couplets there are in it, a stylistic quirk that is one strand of evidence that’s prompted some scholars to suggest, quite recently, that it might have been co-authored by Thomas Middleton, whose dramatic couplet ratio is much higher than Shakespeare’s. The couplet density suits the improbability of the play though… it’s a drama of sudden reversals, a drama in which rational motivation is secondary to a kind of antithetical elegance. The couplets suggest that ‘character’ is foreclosed by language itself and that a strange fatality forces all our detours back to their original projected course.