"All's well that ends well," asserts Helena, the leading lady of Shakespeare's comedy by that name. It's near the play's end, and she knows she is going to get her man, so she's pretty sure of things.
But don't get the idea that this work, to receive one of its comparatively infrequent airings tonight at 8 on Channel 26, goes no deeper than the simplistic homily of its title. It's not that at all. One cannot ignore the exquisitely tuned Shakespearean gradations of ambivalence and irony. In fact, once Helena has Bertram, the King of France goes out of his way in the final lines of "All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, the bitter past, more welcome is the sweet."
We open on this defensive foot because of the play's reputation as one of Shakespeare's "problem comedies," whatever that means. The "problem" comedies," whatever that means. The "problem" would seem to derive from two sources. One is that some might see some incongruity between its more subtle flights of verse and such unfettered horseplay as the spinless Parolles' resolve to recapture a Florentine military drum from the Sinese enemy. Also, there is a temptation to dismiss as an afterthought this lesser work just because it falls rough between "Hamlet" and that prodigal grouping, "Lear," "Macbeth" and "Antony."
The production is the BBC/Time Life complete Shakespeare at its most opulent; their recent, splendid "Antony" was spare by comparison. The settings at the Court of Rossillion where much of the action occurs, seem directly derived from Vermeer's glowing interplays of light, shadow and texture. A little baroque for most Shakespeare, perhaps, but "All's Well" can take the visual feast.
The performances are hard to make sense of without describing the plot -- and that's even harder. It's a little nugget of amorous deceit and intrigue that Shakespeare lifted from Boccaccio's "Decameron." First off, Bertram (Ian Charleson) and Helena (Angela Down) are young persons who grew up together in the Court of Rossillion but they are hardly young lovers. Helena wants Bertram, but he doesn't want her; he thinks she is miles beneath his station. It's a problem that takes five acts and multiple plot convolutions of varying plausibility to resolve. What is not resolved, though, is just why anyone should want the aimless Bertram.
In this play there are no clear-cut heroes or heroines; almost everyone gets a little mud in the face. To some extent, Helena is the stereotypical possessed woman, but she also the best thing that ever came Bertram's way. And in Down's intense performance, her tribute to "his bright radiance and collateral light" seems sincere, of all things. The lights and setting make the most of Down's ephemeral fragility, and her acting holds to the narrow middle line between the opposing sides of the character.
Charleson makes Bertram properly weak without being offensive. As his lustily loutish sidekick, Parolles, Peter Jeffrey is satisfyingly offensive. As the French king, Bertram's guardian, Donald Sinden is properly lordly, which is about the character's only dimension.
Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rossillion, receives a performance of real distinction from Celia Johnson, one of the finest actresses of the Olivier-Gielgud generation. Elijah Moshinsky directs, in a impressive television debut.