Having kicked off its season with a full-length reading of the King James Bible over Easter weekend, the Globe opens its mainstage productions with All’s Well That Ends Well. The Globe’s season is entitled “The Word is God” celebrating the 400th anniversary of the KJV and featuring plays such as Hamlet and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. If All’s Well has a less obvious connection to Biblical themes, at least its fairytale-like plot and strong characters make for compelling viewing. Indeed, the Globe’s All’s Well, artfully directed by John Dove, is a clear, energetic production with well-played humor and strong acting.
As with many Globe productions, the set is simple. A blue pole with garland creates an archway. The large back panels, covered in a blown-up etching of a countryside landscape, hinge to reveal the same scene but in a darker color. (The nighttime backdrop is used during Parolles’s set-up and interrogation scene.) Costumes are sumptuous and plush black to begin with, though they grow more colorful as the action progresses. Parolles’s flamboyant outfit garners a laugh when Lafeu (Michael Bertenshaw) says: “Pray you sir, who’s his tailor?” Musicians William Lyons (also the composer), Paul Bevan, Nicholas Perry, Neil Rowland, and Richard Thomas provide delicate accompaniment. The score features the celeste (think of the sound in the Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”), lending an ethereal quality to the staging.
Helena is a pro-active Shakespearean heroine; she has a clearly defined mission statement (1. Get the ring 2. Get pregnant 3. Marry Bertram—not necessarily in that order), and she is unafraid to take the steps necessary to achieve her goals. No wilty waiting around to be suffocated; no passing out of flowers. It takes a certain kind of Shakespearean actress to pull off determined-but-vulnerable, and Ellie Piercy does a superb job. She effectively conveys Helena’s struggle between her status and her desires.
Sam Crane’s Bertram is something of an enigma. Certainly, Bertram has an underwritten journey—just how is one supposed to go from spurning lover, to seducer, to repentant husband?—but Crane wears a blank expression and reveals few of Bertram’s motivations. It is a strange juxtaposition, since Crane was so ebullient in last year’s 1 Henry IV as Hotspur. Yet, if in the end we are not fully persuaded of Bertram’s love, then at least Crane leaves clues. He clutches Helena’s handkerchief in his hand throughout the play, a gentle reminder of her presence, and his holding onto the object subtly suggests his growing affection (or, lessening of disaffection).
As comic characters, Lavatch (Colin Hurley) and Parolles (James Garnon) keep the comedy remarkably available. Garnon (whom I recently saw play Hamlet in The Factory’s randomized staging) elucidates his thoughts on virginity in pitch-perfect terms. Shakespeare’s clowns can often be inaccessible, but Hurley finds just the right gestures to imply meaning. (Though, with lines such as “It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks” it is hard to go wrong.) Sophie Duval plays the Widow (mother to Naomi Cranston’s Diana) as a barely repressed do-gooder, and hers is one of the bigger performances.
Like Helena, the Globe’s All’s Well That Ends Well has its own well-defined mission. It succeeds both in its ability to entertain large crowds and convey believable emotional journeys. Good cheer is the rule of this All's Well, and any hints of "problem play" are tidily swept under the rug. The cast is universally solid, with strong performances from the female characters, especially Piercy, Cranston, and Janie Dee’s Countess. The fast pace ensures that any lagging moments are quickly left behind. All’s Well is a strong start to the Globe’s summer season.