On Sunday 11th December, we ran a play-reading of All’s Well That Ends Well, here in Edinburgh. This report covers improvements to our play-reading process, and what the players thought of the play. If you’re only interested in the play, scroll down to the Heading ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’.
Improvements to our play-reading process:
If you follow these play-reading reports, (you can find them at: https://players-shakespeare.com/play-readings-2/), you may have noted that we’ve cut back the size of the play-reading group to less than 10. We had 9 at the play-reading of All’s Well, and we noticed the same improvements as last time: with more to do, everyone feels busier; with more characters to play, players are trying to make each character sound different – perhaps the beginning of acting.
Of course, quite a few people who would like to read are not able to come, which makes me feel a little guilty. I hope to reduce the guilt by encouraging those who aren’t coming to start other play-reading groups. The software (both programming and the scripts) is getting much more stable and easier to use, so we’re hoping to get a few other play-reading groups reading the plays in 2017.
We also tried out some new technology. We normally read the plays, reading the text from the Internet, using a web browser, but it is also available as an ebook (in epub format) which works particularly well on Apple iPads and iPhones using iBooks. We had four players reading their parts (in Highlit Text mode) on Apple iPads, and five people using the Internet. The iPad players were happy because the text is clearer and larger, and there’s no need to ‘request’ the next scene – you can scroll through the whole play, and the web browser players were happy because there were only five of them, so the response from the web server was much faster. I was happy because we were using two different technologies accessing two different types of files (HTML and epub) and there were no technology or script hiccups!
Personally, I prefer the iBook format for a number of reasons: the text is higher quality; there are more options with regards to font size and font; using the scroll option, you can scroll through the whole text of the play without pressing a button. Of course, no doubt some people will prefer the web access. It’s good to have alternatives, and each can choose their own preferred option.
We plan to roll out the use of Apple iBooks technology to the plays over the coming year – and hope it will also work on Google Play Books. (An initial test of Google Play on a Windows 10 machine is encouraging – it worked!). But of course, the technology is irrelevant – when it works – so let’s move on to the play itself.
All’s Well That Ends Well playreading:
The nine of us gathered for the play-reading – and three of us were suffering from bad colds which are doing the rounds in Edinburgh at the moment. After our usual casting by lot, it turned out that the King of France had the worst cold, which was rather good, making a good surrogate for his ‘fistula’. Bertram and Lord_2 were also suffering from lesser colds, so the afternoon was punctuated with sniffles and snuffles. One of the players complained they could hardly hear themselves speak over the cacophony of coughs and sneezes. It did demonstrate the commitment players give to these monthly play-readings.
Our random allocation of roles always comes up with some interesting castings. This time we had gender-reversals of both Bertram and Helena. In the reading, it seemed to me it made little difference.
The play is difficult. It doesn’t fit audience (or player) expectation of what a Shakespeare play should be. The language is surprising. Some of the players questioned whether it was written by Shakespeare. Interestingly, some recent academic research by Prof Laurie Maguire and Dr Emma Smith, both part of Oxford University’s English faculty. (see a 2012 Daily Telegraph article) suggests that the play had a co-author, Thomas Middleton, as well as Shakespeare.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty for the audience is the bad behaviour of Bertram in a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Having behaved badly all the way through the play (offensively rejecting Helena as his bride in A2S3; his attempted seduction of Diana in A4S2) he crowns it all in A5S3, when he lies to the French King and Court about his relationship with Diana, “boggling shrewdly” (changing his mind and story) as the evidence against him emerges. This is not the behaviour of an Elizabethan lord, or the hero of a Shakespearean Romantic comedy, and despite the usual Shakespearean magic appearing in the finale, when the ‘dead’ Helena turns up on stage, pregnant, with Bertram’s ring, and claiming him as her husband, we are left with a rather unpleasant feeling of expectations not being met, which is probably the intention of the playwright(s).
In this atmosphere of unfulfilled expectations, our players discussed a number of aspects of the play:
- Parolles was the character that interested the players most One might not be quite sure what to make of the romantic leads, Bertram, or Helena (upper-middle class woman on the make or young girl desperately in love with a bounder), but Parolles was clearly an amusing clown determined to come to a bad end, which he duly does.
- One of the players was a medical doctor and so we spent quite a long time discussing Shakespearean illnesses. A Fistula (which the French king suffers from, and Helena cures) is a very unpleasant condition in nearly unmentionable places. I don’t propose to go into details. Google it if you want to know more. We also discovered that scrofula – another Shakespearean illness, aka as “The King’s Evil”, is a form of tuberculosis usually affecting the lymph nodes of the neck.
- There was a lot of interest in how Helena cured the king. Her dead father, had given her a prescription as to how it could be cured, but it seemed to involve incantation and ritual as well as the prescription (see the end of A2S1).
- Someone also noticed that the play starts in black (perhaps the funeral of Bertram’s father) and ends much lighter and brighter at the planned celebration of Bertram with someone (planned to be Maudlin, but then turns into Helena), though the tone of the play has turned darker and darker.
So the play-reading group were not entirely sure what to make of the reading of All’s Well That Ends Well, though their curiosity was aroused. There was some discussion as to whether we should have a group viewing of a production and we may well do that.
In preparing for the play-reading, I had watched two productions, the BBC Shakespeare Collection production from 1981, and the Globe production from 2013. As an old fogey approaching 70, I had found the BBC version illuminating, but I’m not sure it would reach out to a modern audience. The Globe production was clearly enjoyed by the audience, and I think gets close to making the play work for a modern audience.
The very fact that I had to watch two productions shows that I too was struggling with this play. I had edited the play to get it into our edition, I had round-robin read it twice with my wife, and watched two DVDs. This still wasn’t enough. Usually I try to avoid ‘studying’ the play, and develop my response to it by reading it and watching. In desperation, I turned to reading about it, and have a couple of recommendations for anyone who wants to get to grips with this difficult play:
- I found Aspects of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays with articles from the Shakespeare Survey very helpful. A number of articles were useful, particularly an interview with John Barton, on all the Problem Plays. He recommended another book, which is my second recommendation.
- Angel with Horns, by A P Rossiter, has a wonderful lecture (Chapter 5) on All’s Well That Ends Well, which has most influenced my own thinking on the play.
We will publish All’s Well That Ends Well in our edition shortly, and no doubt the Introduction to the play will be derived, in part, from the thoughts from those two books. After I had edited the script of the play, and started round-robin reading it with my partner, I felt that I could not see a way to put on a successful production of this play. After reading the two books above, participating in our play-reading, and seeing the BBC and Globe productions, I think it would be a rather exciting challenge to take on.