1 October 2009: Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

Amherst Cinema, via satellite from London. Olivier Theatre, National Theatre. Closing night. National Theatre HD.

I still regret not knowing about the first broadcast in this new NT HD series, last June, the NT production of Racine’s Phèdre, with Helen Mirren in the title role. In an interview prior to the present broadcast, Nicholas Hytner mentioned that some 50,000 persons saw the Phèdre. I hope that many more persons will see this production of All’s Well; it deserves the widest possible audience.

In part of the interview preceding the broadcast Marianne Elliott, an associate director of the NT and the director of this production, was also brought in. It was a bit unsettling to hear her say that, having been offered a Shakespeare production in the Olivier (the largest of the three theatres in the NT complex), she chose All’s Well because she had never read it and never seen a production of it, and she wanted to approach a play of Shakespeare’s of which she had had absolutely no experience. Oh, dear. But her theatrical and directorial instincts would seem to be top-notch. She decided, she said, to endow the play with a kind of fairy-tale aura — perhaps to overcome the implausibility of the main action. At the same time she observed that the characters are more complex than one usually finds in a fairy tale.

Somehow this all blended together and came out right. The concept was clear, and the acting was marvelous.

The stand-out performers were the central four or five: Michelle Terry as Helena; Clare Higgins as the Countess of Rossillion; Conleth Hill, as Parolles; and Oliver Ford Davies as the King of France. Perhaps I should include in this list George Rainsford as Bertram. This last is a rather thankless role; Bertram is as close as Shakespeare comes to a low-life for a romantic hero. He seems to have no redeeming features whatever, except perhaps for a certain bravery on the battlefield. And he is known by the company he keeps, namely his “captain” Parolles, a worthless, morally bankrupt, extraordinarily self-aware knave and fool (and marvelously entertaining, as only Shakespearean knaves and fools can be); and yet even he is not bad enough to let go hungry. “A man must eat.” And yet Helena loves Bertram, and pursues him in the most determined way, setting all his faults aside. Michelle Terry makes the pursuit believable and even touching. It somehow helps that she is unusually plain. (How did she ever get to be an actress? Sheer outsized talent, I believe.) Rainsford managed to bring off the character convincingly; he is a rather rotten type, irresponsible and careless, morally bankrupt, but with youth and a future before him, unlike Parolles. Well, he has no father left alive to guide and correct him. Fatherless young heroes have the habit of not yet knowing their way and possessing a genius for getting into trouble by following the promptings of “nature.” His mother the Countess also loves him dearly (perhaps that gives us a clue to his prospects for final, if unlikely, redemption). And so, overall, the moral economy of this unlikely, dark comedy, though complex, is like all of Shakespeare’s comedies dynamically well balanced and, though you wouldn’t know it, aimed at a happy end. A close-up of the two, Helena and Bertram, at the very end, shows us changes of facial expression from happiness to a more serious, “Oh, what have I gotten myself into” kind of look. They might well wonder at that. But it puts a nice endpoint to Elliott’s remarkably sure-handed balancing of fairy-tale elements with modern, realistic “complexity.” The fairy tale reconsidered.

As for the fairy-tale aura, the costumes and the setting were also a complex mix of styles. The costumes were a kind of blend of nineteenth- and twentieth-century clothing with more traditional things out of children’s books — robes and gowns and crowns. The King of France’s crown was a masterpiece of make-believe intricacy, and we had a dandy close-up view of it; it survived inspection much better than most paste-and-gilt confections usually do. The military officers’ uniforms were almost-civilian dark suits (Bond-Street handsome and stylish), but with fanciful braids hung from the shoulder or the chest. Helena’s initial costume, a kind of household worker’s dark gown with a very full stand-out petticoat, later had the addition to it of a brilliant dark red cloak and hood, à la Red Riding Hood, which she, the orphan daughter of a famous physician, wears when she goes to Paris to cure the king of his fistula. Even later, in the Florence scenes, her non-descript traveling clothes disguise a tu-tu-like abbreviated costume, all silver and glitter, which pairs her with an identical ensemble in yellow, both of them cat-like with fanciful tails, worn by Diana in the service of tricking Bertram into sleeping with Helena and getting her with child, and thus pinning him to the promise he made Helena in his “Dear Helena” letter.

The settings likewise had a wonderful and sometimes fearful fairy-tale quality. Magnificent, ornate carved-metal doors, well upstage, would open and make very effective portals for entrance. Backlighted, characters could stand in the doorway and pose meaningfully. Early on, in the French court, those doors opened, a red carpet was rolled out, and at the downstage end of it a bench, which could have been Louis XIV, was set for the king, on top of which was a bulky pillow to spare him the harder seat, given the pain of his fistula. In the larger surround, a high walkway encircling the stage led down to the stage floor at left, arcing and circling, as entrance and exit for soldiers; decorated with battlefield-like criss-cross barriers, it represented the fearful world of the unknown through which Helena and others had to pass in pursuit of their ends, or their dreams. The lighting of it was, again, marvellous.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the staging, imposed on all of the foregoing, was the very selective use of light. One sensed that much of the stage was in darkness much of the time. There were no actual full-stage changes of scene; rather, with the well-managed use of set pieces like benches and tables, and at one point, for the bed-trick scene, a suspension of three linked bedsheets, admitting of some nicely managed backlighted silhouettes, the movement of the action through various times and places could be very efficiently indicated, just by raising or lowering or refocusing the lights. Even as one scene ended, the next scene was already getting under way, a welcome means of maintaining the pace of a play noteworthy for its desultoriness, moving back and forth from Rossillion (presumably Shakespeare has in mind the modern Roussillon, in the south of France) to Paris to Florence, then back to Paris, intermittently to and from Rossillion, and finally ending there.

A word about camera work. A special producer, named in the credits, was in charge of photographing the production for the HD broadcast. But I suspect the NT knew the production was going to be broadcast, even as it entered the design stage. In any case, there was a lot of close-in and medium-shot camera work; only occasionally did we get shots of the entire stage. More often, the cameras were excluding as much as or more than they took in, giving us the experience of witnessing a Shakespearean production produced in a modern television studio, presented in real time. A moment’s reflection leads one to conclude that, if the cameras were pulled back so as to encompass more of the stage, or all of it, we would simply have seen more unlighted portions of the stage. The result was that the only time we saw the whole stage was during the moments when movement of soldiers or others occurred along the high, down-curving processional arc; and even then, much of the lower part of the stage was in darkness. And so we had what Nicholas Hytner called the emergence of a hybrid entertainment form. Thinking this over, and discussing the point with a fellow audience member (who had been to the National twice this year, he said) at intermission, I suggested how very different the experience would have been if they simply set up a fixed camera in the middle of the stalls, in order to give viewers the same experience that a member of the audience would have, sitting in the same seat and having thus the exact same vantage point on the action throughout the play. On further reflection, I conclude that focal lengths of lenses are of crucial importance here. My fellow audience member said that he had seen a production in the Olivier, and he never felt a sense of the kind of vastness and distance that was occurring in this HD broadcast. He said that while in the National he felt reasonably close to all the performers the whole time. True enough. It’s the intervention of a second, highly specific but variable “eye,” the camera lens, that intermittently draws us much closer than we otherwise could be, viewing the actor’s makeup and nuanced facial expression close-in, or that ramps us far out, enabling us to look at what seems like a whole acre of make-believe articulated on the large expanse of the Olivier stage (or could look at it in its entirety, if the lights were up).

We will never know exactly what it was like, the experience of buying a £45 seat in the Olivier stalls and seeing this production of All’s Well from a single, unvarying perspective. What must it have been like, then, seeing it under those conditions, when much apparent care had been taken to stage it simultaneously for multiple moving cameras as well? That was where the true nature of the hybrid form was realized. Making that available in several countries on either side of the Atlantic (and perhaps of other oceans as well) was a technological triumph, but that was not where the true hybridity of this new form of entertainment resided; it resided right there on the stage and in the auditorium as well, where cameras were positioned at several stations (I’m inferring something here; not once were we allowed to see a camera dollying or just standing, pointed toward some part of the stage). And let me add that the camera work here seemed much more exploitative of the possible visual resources, especially of selective, close-up shooting, than did the camera work done for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performances, in which one has a much greater sense of watching a whole-stage production of an opera.

More thought needs to be given to the nature and implications of this hybrid form. It seems to recapitulate things that were happening on television sound stages in the 1950s as live plays were introduced, in real time (not taped and edited prior to broadcast); but those were plays written for television, not written for an outdoor platform in Southwark. A fascinating subject altogether . . .


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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