All’s Well That Ends Well

By William Shakespeare
Performed by Juan Chioran, Brian Dennehy, Martha Henry, Jeff Lillico, Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney, Daniela Vlaskalic and company
Directed by Marti Maraden
Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production
Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 19 to August 23, 2008
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

 Perhaps all does not end not so well

The title of All’s Well That Ends Well is somewhat ironic.  This play by Shakespeare does not actually end well at all – in fact, it suffers from a very contrived ending which attempts to make the audience believe that the young couple will live happily ever after, when our instincts tell us otherwise.

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of several of Shakespeare’s works that has been nicknamed the “problem plays”  — the problem being that the play doesn’t fit into one of Shakespeare’s categories.  Most of his works can be neatly packaged as comedy, history, tragedy, and romance.  Scholars believe that All’s Well That Ends Well was intended to be a comedy, but compared to other works, it is simply not as funny.  The humour is rather dark comedy.

The 2008 production of All’s Well That Ends Well at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has not risen above Shakespeare’s artificial ending.  However, a very strong cast has still given us an interesting story with many funny moments.

The King of France (Brian Dennehy) is very ill, when fortunately, Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic), the daughter of a respected physician who is now dead, is able to cure him.  As a reward, the King grants her request to marry anyone she wishes.  She chooses Bertram (Jeff Lillico), the son of a Countess (Martha Henry) who is Helena’s adopted mother.  Bertram is horrified – someone of his high class would not consider marrying a lowly doctor’s daughter, who also happens to be his mother’s charge.  The King forces the marriage, but Bertram, being such a snob, declares that he would rather go off to war and face death, then be the husband of the common Helena.

But Helena is determined.  She tricks him into marital relations with the help of Diana (Leah Oster), a young woman who has caught Bertram’s eye, assisted by Diana’s mother, the Widow Capilet (Fiona Reid).  Once Bertram finds out that Helena is pregnant, and he’s the father, (he vowed this would never happen), he suddenly decides that he will love her and be a good husband.  It’s this unbelievable change of heart that makes for a weak conclusion, causing All’s Well That Ends Well to be one of Shakespeare’s less popular plays.

Having said that, the cast that has been assembled for this production should make it very popular with audiences.  Dennehy is outstanding as the King, and it’s a treat to watch the two-time Tony award winner command the stage.  Dennehy has an impressive list of Broadway credits, several guest-star roles on television, and some fascinating movie credits – the most recent being Ratatouille.

It’s interesting to note that this play was performed 55 years ago in Stratford during the inaugural season under the big tent – with the great Alec Guinness as the King and Irene Worth as Helena.  Even more interesting is the fact that Martha Henry played Helena in 1977 as did Fiona Reid in 1982, and now both woman are appearing in the same play again, taking the mothers’ roles.  Stratford also presented All’s Well That Ends Well as recently as 2002, with the late William Hutt as the King.

Both Martha Henry and Fiona Reid are excellent as the contrasting mothers.  Henry demonstrates her disappointment in Bertram, but somehow gets the message across that he is still her son and she still loves him.  Reid, as the poor widow, adds humour when she quickly jumps to take part in a scheme, once it involves money for her.

Vlaskalic as the lovelorn Helena is interesting and does well with the part as it is written.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand why she wants to marry the pompous Bertram.  Oster, as Diana, delivers a fascinating riddle explaining how the “bait & switch” scheme to capture Bertram worked.  Unfortunately, Oster is not able to put the necessary enthusiasm into her description.

Jeff Lillico plays the whiney, snobbish Bertram very well.  But the contrived ending gets in the way, and it’s hard to believe Bertram could ever love Helena.  This is probably more the fault of a missing element in the plot.

The play is saved by comic relief in a hilarious sub-plot.  The haughty Bertram has a friend, Parolles, (Juan Chioran) who is even more pretentious.  Parolles is a terrible braggart, but the other young lords know he is really a coward.  They set him up, pretending that they are the enemy army, capturing him and blindfolding him, just to listen to him capitulate and tell lies.  They fake a foreign language and speaking in gibberish, have an interpreter (Randy Hughson) talk to him.  They have great fun with the language and actions while Parolles wears the blindfold.

Humour is also added by Lavache (Tom Rooney), a clown-like figure who hangs around the Countess’ home.  He slouches about in contrast to Bertram’s and Parolles’ snobbery.  Yet he also puts on airs, sitting on the Countess’ sofa with his feet up.

With an interesting, seasoned cast, and a few humourous scenes, the evening was well worthwhile.  Unfortunately, we can’t ask Shakespeare just how we are to reconcile the class-consciousness and his lack of a believable conclusion, with the fact that this is supposed to be a comedy.  But maybe, Shakespeare meant it to a “problem play”.

All’s Well That Ends Well continues at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until August 23.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check


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