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The production design of this video is based on paintings by Vermeer,
Rembrandt, de la Tour and others. It is uniformly striking and lovely,
and will live in the memory.
The acting performances are good, but uneasy, perhaps reflecting the problematic nature of the play. Ian Charleson's Bertram is cold, Angela Down's Helen is weepy, and so they stay for yards and yards of iambic pentameter. Only Donald Sinden as the King errs on the side of too much emotional variety, but it's hard to remember a Sinden performance in which he wasn't an explosive law unto himself. Michael Hordern and Peter Jeffrey battle deftly as Lafeu and Parolles, while Paul Brooke's Lavache is more menacing than witty. Pippa Guard's Diana is unfailingly dignified, and a small cameo by the aged Valentine Dyall proves unexpectedly moving. And as the Countess, Celia Johnson's presence is every bit as sympathetic here as it was in "Brief Encounter" 35 years earlier.
Any dissatisfactions mentioned in this review are just quibbles, however, as the play is rare and worthwhile, the production gratifies the eye, and no one writes a closing reconciliation scene like Shakespeare. Indeed, All's Well That Ends Well.
This award-winning BBC production brings life, enormous appeal, and
intelligence to a play criminally underperformed. It's a pleasure to
watch ... and re-watch ... and re-watch.
Let's start with the fact that the production itself has been hailed far and wide for its beauty and visual precision. Director Elijah Moshinsky patterned it after paintings of Vermeer, and even though this may be unknown to the viewer, it has a remarkable subliminal impact.
Now for the cast:
Angela Down is the truly perfect Helena (the heroine of the play). She looks the part -- comely yet intellectual -- and speaks her lines with the perfect emotional fit. Most importantly, her diction and enunciation, and the speed at which she says the bard's words, make everything she says perfectly understandable and perfectly apt within that emotional fit. The viewer never has to wonder "What did she just say?" or "What does that mean?" Nonetheless the lines are fluid, musical, emotional, and very human. To me, this is the sign of a true Shakespearean actor.
Celia Johnson as the Countess Roussillon (Bertram's mother and Helena's guardian) is equally fantastic. She's a pleasure to watch and listen to. Consummate acting.
Ian Charleson as Bertram, Helena's very reluctant love object, is suitably sullen and morose, yet we see the physical beauty and the inherent charm, nobility, and charisma which attracts Helena to him. Charleson, a very internal actor, never overplays the part. To some extent he sometimes almost underplays it, occasionally speaking softly whilst his compatriots declaim more loudly or forcefully. Yet he holds our attention and fits the role very well.
The supporting cast is almost without exception quite admirable -- some remarkably so. Excellent casting, and a lot of excellent acting.
All in all, a very good production which makes the play easy to understand and enjoy.
Chaste, thoughtful Helena loves cold, self-centered Bertram. But when
the handsome young man rejects her common birth with aristocratic
scorn, unexpected events lead to deception and passion! This dark
Shakespeare play is one of the real gems of the BBC collection.
Everything is right about the costumes, the actors, the sets, and the
lush sensuality of the presentation. Ian Charleson as Bertram is more
of a villain than a hero through much of the play, laughing at Helena's
tears and running off to play with his soldier friends. Yet when lust
strikes him in turn, he is humbled. Pippa Guard is refined and
hauntingly beautiful as Diana, the girl from the "wrong side of the
tracks" (or the Elizabethan equivalent) whom the haughty Bertram plans
to seduce. Diana is not just a cheap tramp. She has a desperate purity.
Far from welcoming the noble's advances, she reacts like a frightened
deer, or a cornered rabbit, shying from Bertram's cynical touch. Only
the shrewd scheming of Helena and her high-born friends (including a
king who recognizes her true worth) allows her to capture Bertram's
heart at last. Humbled and humiliated by his total downfall, (and
Diana's scorn) Bertram falls into forgiving Helena's open arms and
proclaims his passionate devotion.
A sexy play, full of romantic longing, arrogant elegance, and sheer unadulterated desire!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though not nearly as much fun as some of Shakespeare's better comedies,
this is nevertheless good fun to watch. Although it irritates me to see
Shakespeare performed in stodgy period dress, it's still a well-acted
I was especially fond of Peter Jeffrey as the foppish Parolles. I like Shakespeare when he portrays upper-class idiots as he has a tendency in too many of his plays ("Measure for Measure", "A Midsummer Night's Dream")to portray the working classes as fools or rustics whose natural place is subservient to the lords and ladies who are so often his principal characters. This is patronising, but is some way made up for here. Jeffrey is excellent fun and his verbal duels with Micheal Horden's Lafeu are the best scenes in the play.
Angela Down is very good is the smart Helena, and Ian Charleson has the right mix of charm and sullenness as Bertram, her unwilling choice of husband. Pippa Guard is very fetching as the maid Diana, and Donald Sinden gives a good performance as the King of France.
By no means a classic of Shakespeare's, it's still a good watch.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
--spoilers-- I loved this version. The Beeb have used Vermeer paintings
for Bertram's home, notably the Girl at the Spinet (I think that's the
title), but done it all in black and white. Amazing set. Helena plays
the spinet at one stage and how interesting as I'd never seen a spinet
keyboard that close before - how cramped the keyboard is.
Every character is acted perfectly. Bertram is hissily horrid to nice kind Helena, and wouldn't we ladies all like to smack him for his ill manners? Time and again in the past women were forced into marriages with men they detested and how many of those men who had the freedom to choose their bride ever cared if she was miserable? But Bertram throws a fit when ordered by the King to marry Helena because he despises her "lowly rank". I can't imagine even the very grateful king would have forced a nobleman in his court to marry a girl much below his class and it was clear all the other gentlemen questioned were happy to have her if she'd chosen so. What's with Bertram's arrogance?!
It makes a good story as Bertram defies the King somewhat by refusing to consummate the marriage and then has the cheek to use the dowry the king has given Helena to pay for his accoutrements and journey off to war, leaving Helena a spiteful note telling her he won't love her until she has got a valuable family ring off his finger and can prove he's made her pregnant - two feats he's certain she can never achieve as he also tells her he'll never see her again. He sends a thoroughly mean letter to his mother too, saying there's nothing for him at home until his unwanted wife is dead. Not a thought for his poor old mother maybe never seeing him again.
Of course Helena manages to get the ring and the pregnancy, although she's exceedingly fortunate that the Florentine girl Diana who helps Helena trap Bertram back into his marriage isn't after Bertram herself when he absolutely ruthlessly sets out to seduce her. But Diana is sensible. She knows Bertram's married and won't give herself without marriage. Disliking Bertram's deceit, she and her mother and some friends are happy to trick Bertram so that Helena gets the ring and the pregnancy. Mean Bertram is thoroughly trapped though he doesn't know it yet.
He hears that his wife is dead and goes home. Everyone including the King congregates there for the final scene. There's a fair bit of fuss about rings being in the possession of the wrong people and the king gets annoyed with Bertram again. Diana and her mother and Helena also arrive though Helena keeps out of sight whilst Diana insists Bertram must marry her. Bertram is in a fix because now his wife's dead he's decided he loves her. But it's all sorted out when Helena appears. Bertram gets off pretty lightly, frankly.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a simple comedy by Shakespeare. Nothing to deface the world
with laughter or to haunt your sleepless nights. But we find in this
light comedy some themes that are dear to our playwright. Love, and
love, and love. The love of a girl for a boy, of a young woman for a
young man, a love that cannot exist because of the social difference
between the two. The ingenuity and creativity of the young woman who
saves the life of the king with the medical knowledge she received from
her father, and the promise of the King to give her any man she wants.
She chooses the young man who is well obliged to oblige and get
married, which does not mean consume the union. He goes to the war and
the young woman is going to follow and with some other young women she
will trick him into impregnating her and an exchange of rings will make
the situation very difficult for him. So the union has been consumed
sort of on the side and the young man graciously accepts his defeat and
declares his love. That is slightly artificial but Shakespeare in his
comedies at times is slightly superficial. Another theme that is dealt
with nicely is the "captain" that takes care of the young noble man we
are dealing with when serving in the military. He is a liar, he is a
coward, he is also running after skirts as much as he can. Shakespeare
disgraces him with some kind of conjuration and he ends up nearly a
beggar, stinking to hell and blazes and ready to do anything to get a
penny. That's a very simple version of what Falstaff is going to be
later but he is funny in some ways though pathetic. The BBC is adding
to that play that is mostly taking place in France, and a little in
Florence, a setting and costumes that are, in the house of the young
man, very close to the Flemish school of painting, Rembrandt and the
Van Eyck brothers. That gives to the play a post-Renaissance touch that
is slightly surprising.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID
In a sense, there has been too much effort and taste lavished on a
problem play that is a long way short of Shakespeare's best. The
Vermeer interiors and Rembrandt references look a treat, but (as well
as being anachronistic by half a century) add weight where there is
little in the text. A number of the performances do the same, including
Angela Down's magnificent Helena, and Paul Brooke's Lavache, the least
clownish, and most accountant-like, clown one could possibly hope to
The problem is that if the play is read as a piece with serious psychological points to make and where motivation may be complex but remains explicable, then it is a hard play to watch. Bertram is a distinctly unappealing husband (Ian Charleson's performance does not find hidden depths) for a strong character such as Helena. The tormenting of Parolles by Bertram and his friends can be dismissed as Elizabethan knockabout, unless the treatment is highly realistic, in which case - as in this production - it looks like torture. The attempted seduction of Diana can be farcical, with the clever comedic logic of the rings and the pregnancy, but here seems simply unpleasant.
Donald Sinden's King is the sort of eye-rolling ham performance that will make sense of this play, but amidst the restraint he falls rather flat.
The stand-out performance is Celia Johnson's Countess, a lovely role brilliantly played. She is not the butt of any jokes, and so can be played tenderly. As with Sinden, the older style of acting suits the material. Sometimes, for example during the Florentine scenes, one aches for Johnson to be on screen.
It's not awful, just very much the wrong style, like filming St Trinians in the style of Cathy Come Home.
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