After all these years, Shakespeare's widely disregarded "problem" play, the comedy "All's Well That Ends Well," is given its full due in the magnificent Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to the Martin Beck last night. The evening, which runs to well over three hours, with a single intermission, is so vibrant that it seems to fly by. The author, who never had the advantage of seeing it (it wasn't staged until more than a century after his death), would have been astounded and overjoyed.
Trevor Nunn, who has directed it with an almost awesome mastery and fluidity, has moved the time up to the early 20th century, the action covering roughly the Edwardian period and beyond. Some anachronisms inevitably result, but they're of no consequence. For the result is stunning, and it serves to emphasize how modern this play - whose central situation has always been considered so troublesome - is in so many respects. The feeling of immediacy we experience is much like that we get from "Measure for Measure," another "problem" play, and from the byplay between Benedick and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing." Helena's dogged pursuit of Bertram, aided by her outrageous trickery, for some reason seems more acceptable in a war-torn Florence (forget your history here), just as Bertram's ultimate acknowledgment of the truth and his apparent sincerity (though the play still leaves the future very much in doubt as the silhouetted couple, seen dancing at the opening, walk somewhat stiffly off together at the end) are easier to take than usual.
Much of this is due, of course, to some excellent performances, especially that of a sharp-featured Harriet Walter as Helena, whose hard-headed, calculating, and successful attempt to marry above her station in exchange for curing the French king makes her an unsympathetic figure to begin with, but who grows on us steadily until her persistence and unflagging ardor make her increasingly engaging and lovely. And an impetuous and boyish-looking Philip Franks, as Bertram, bound for glory and with no time to waste on an unwanted bride, is also well cast. There are splendid performances, too, by Margaret Tyzack as Bertram's fond but concerned mother, the Countess of Rossillion, and by Robert Eddison as a suave and wise Lord Lafeu.
Stephen Moore is a hilarious and, in spite of all, oddly sympathetic Parolles, Bertram's chatty, cowardly, and dandyish sidekick, a sort of dapper Falstaff to a preppy Prince Hal. But, then, almost every role in this large cast is tellingly played, right down to Gregory Hutchings' clown (here, the Countess' steward), a fellow we could generally do without, except for his role as a go-between.
As the story shifts back and forth between France and Italy, dancers - and, at one point, a marching band - splash the stage with color to appealing Chopinesque and Straussian tunes composed and arranged by Guy Woolfenden. And all this within simple but ever-shifting scenery creating the impression of an airy pavilion with its slanted, glass-paned roof. The lighting is exquisite, and the costuming is superb.
There simply isn't room to name all these fine people, but I should mention Susan Jane Tanner's adorable Diana and Deirdra Morris as her canny, exuberant mother.
This "All's Well That Ends Well" is a revelation amounting almost to a discovery of the playwright's full intent. The play and its incomparable production bring glory to Broadway.
The most fantastic and exciting evening currently in the New York theater is a revival - indeed the revival of a play some 380 years old. It is Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, which last night Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare Company brought triumphantly to the Martin Beck Theater.
It is difficult to pay this production its full justice without sounding fulsome or even foolish - for it is one of the landmark Shakespearen productions of the contemporary English theater.
What Broadway is seeing in this All's Well That Ends Well is not updated Shakespeare, but Shakespeare made vital for our times. With its mixture of naturalism and poetry it is the consummation of the new English classic style. It successfully attempts to create, as it were, a theatrical world that the audience can walk around in and savor the sights and sounds of genius.
It truly is a new approach, and one that has come about by a process of evolution rather than revolution. It is almost ironic, yet perhaps just, that this present pinnacle should come with probably Shakespeare's most unpopular, although not most neglected, play.
For years people have dubbed All's Well a "problem" play, and it is extraordinarily difficult to take seriously, with all its wild perversities and ambiguities. Its plot is ridiculous, its hero is a cad, and its heroine a superficially unconvincing mixture of doormat and Woman's Libber.
We are asked to take, more or less seriously, a young woman, Helena, who miraculously cures the King of France of a mortal illness, and in return the King offers her the husband of her choice. She, lowly born, chooses the aristocratic Bertram, who is the son of the household where she works as a Lady's maid. So far, so ridiculous.
More incredibility awaits us. Bertram tells his new bride that he will not live with her until she can get his ring off his finger and become pregnant with his child. He then promptly leaves Paris for a convenient war in Florence - where he covers himself with glory.
By a ruse Helena gets her man. It is not a ruse that can be taken seriously - the original tale came from Boccacio, by the way - and after Helena wins her Bertram, one wonders whether he is worth winning, or, despite her desperate determination, she worth the taking. You see, a maladjusted play - full of sound and fury, but oddly signifying life.
The thing that Nunn and his friends have so wonderfully captured is that while the realities of Shakespeare's plot are essentially nonsense, the characters themselves are totally real. And in this contrast there lies a possibility for an almost pure and naked demonstration of humanity.
Nunn has obviously chosen as his key line to the play the typically Shakespearean comment "the web of our life is a mingled yarn." He has taken two relationships - the nastily ambiguous one between Helena and Bertram, and the even stranger one between the rascally Parolles, seen here as a skinny Falstaff, and the worldly courtier, Lafeu.
These relationships, virtually presided over by Bertram's mother, Countess of Rossillion, are made into the play's twin centers. This is about the vagaries of character, the forces of circumstance, and the actually very pragmatic concept that all is well that actually ends well. God would doubtless not agree, but man suffers with it.
Apart from the concept, the production is on two levels, the technical and the physical.
Technically it is fascinating. For centuries, perhaps, we have been taught that Shakespeare was poetry rather than language. Here, not for the first but certainly for the most confident time, the RSC is telling us that Shakespeare is conversation. The rhymed couplets - and they abound - are tripped mockingly upon the tongue, and the sense of the words, rather their rhetorical sound, is made immediate.
You suddenly sense that Shakespeare is talking our language, not Shakespeare's. The veils of poetic utterance fall away, and the thought shines steady through the verbiage. It is the final breakthrough the English classic theater - whether it knew it or not - has been working toward for over the past half century.
The physical production is rewarding. Nunn, together with his designers John Gunter for the sets and Lindy Hemming for the costumes, has set the action down in some Ruritanian Edwardian never-was land, which has the special advantage of stressing the play's odd reliance on class distinction.
Bertram is a snob even more than he is a cad. And the production's easy acceptance of the various levels of Edwardian society make all this perfectly tenable.
The RSC is an ensemble company - but an ensemble of stars. Its performances have an ease and authority that, at this moment in time, should make them the envy and cynosure of the entire world.
You could pick anyone from the cast as exceptional. For example Peter Land and Simon Templeman as the Dumaine brothers - both giving exquisitely poised performances.
Of course, the leading roles are provided with the same dimensions of truth - Robert Eddison, a great veteran English actor, makes a wonderfully supercilious yet human figure of Lafeu. Stephen Moore is Parolles to his very core, John Franklyn-Robbins is handsomely avuncular as the King, Geoffrey Hutchings provides an admirably mannered Lavache and Margaret Tyzack is the very model of poetic gentility as the Countess.
Finally, as those ill-assorted lovers, Philip Franks and Harriet Walter place conundrums in the world of possibility, and act to infinity.
You will hear complaints about this production - French chansons augmenting the action and other seeming irrelevancies - but forget them. This is Shakespeare real, live and honest and now.
Until the climactic scene, in which the gold of dawn at last peeks through, the light in the Royal Shakespeare Company's ''All's Well That Ends Well'' comes in shades of gray. That's how it should be. This comedy is indeed the problem play everyone has always said it is. Call ''All's Well'' what you will - a romance studded with nasty thorns, a cynical satire, a jumble - it is often cloudy. But gray, in Shakespeare's hands, becomes silver, and this play, stepchild of the canon though it may be, is still a mirror, however cracked, held up to the world. It reflects the intensity of life from the oddest of angles.
Or so it seems when ''All's Well'' is mounted with the high style, considered intelligence and wit that are to be found in the production that has traveled from England to the Martin Beck. Trevor Nunn, the director, can't always overcome the author's slow exposition, passages of crabby poetry and infelicities of structure and characterization. But he has created a shimmering, sophisticated evening that upholds the play's rich and long view of human nature, its dark music, its double-edged laughter. If ''All's Well'' lacks the crowd-pleasing attributes of the last two Nunn epics to play New York, ''Nicholas Nickleby'' and ''Cats,'' it's the most fascinating of the group and, when it hits its high points, the most rewarding.
The play is essentially about warfare - of sex, class and the battlefield. Its principal plot, taken from Boccaccio, tells of Helena, a poor physician's daughter who is mad for Bertram, the Count of Rossillion. After magically curing the dying King of France, Helena is awarded Bertram's hand in marriage by the monarch. But the snotty Bertram refuses to have anything to do with his forced marriage to a lowborn woman and runs away to the Italian wars. The disguised heroine gives chase, finally to trap Bertram into a marital consummation by staging a fiendish mistaken-identity trick in bed.
Mr. Nunn's principal conceit for elevating this disagreeable and thin tale is to move the action to the late Edwardian era. As fabulously designed by John Gunter (who also did ''Plenty'' and London's current hit revival of ''Guys and Dolls''), this ''All's Well'' unfolds in a glass pavilion that eventually encompasses a gymnasium, a gentlemanly officers' club, a belle epoque bistro, a gilt ballroom, a tent-and-smoke-filled war zone and an autumnal, Chekhovian mansion belonging to the wise dowager Countess who is both Bertram's widowed mother and Helena's protective guardian. The stunning costumes (from the men's goggles and boots to the Italian nurses' Red Cross outfits) and the dying fall of Guy Woolfenden's Chopin-tinged music complete the period palette.
But the modernized setting is not just a fashionable sugar-coating. Mr. Nunn has taken seriously Shaw's famous observation that Helena was a precursor of Ibsen's New Woman. By leaping to the Ibsen-Shaw time frame, the director has brought a fresh and illuminating context to an implacably courageous heroine who will do anything and everything to get the man with whom she has a neurotic, even nymphomaniacal obsession. Harriet Walter fills out the conception by playing the role with a galvanizing mixture of intense feeling (too tremulously so early on) and flaming determination. She further takes the curse of foolishness off the role by making the ironic most of Helena's gradual, Ibsenesque realization that it is self-destructive for a smart woman to distort her life to a silly man's will.
The Edwardian ambience also achieves a resonance with the play's overriding theme that merit, not blood, determines human worth. While the historical details of the text don't accurately square with actual early-20th-century history, its spirit meshes remarkably with its new period. As World War I marked the last gasp of both the old European aristocracy and Victorian sexuality, so this ''All's Well'' is a fantasy about the shattering of those strictures. By the time the production's second half opens with a literal hole gaping through its elegant pavilion, one feels that Mr. Nunn has not only shown us the continuum that links Helena to Ibsen's Nora, but also the one that links Shakespeare's larger social critique to, say, Joan Littlewood's empire-smashing ''Oh, What a Lovely War.''
This isn't to say that all of the director's good work stems from his setting. Many of the best moments in this ''All's Well'' are simply a marriage of good old-fashioned theatrical inventiveness and superb acting to a scrupulous reading of the text. The choice of period has nothing to do with the farcical delight that attends Helena's selection of a mate at the French court, which is here choreographed as a wicked game of musical husbands, or with the sisterly solidarity that binds Helena to her female co-conspirators in Florence.
Perhaps the grandest scenes are those involving Bertram's dissolute crony, the braggart Parolles. Long considered a poor man's Falstaff or Pistol, this character achieves full Shakespearean depth in Stephen Moore's sensational performance. He's a scarf-betwined, cigarette-gesturing fop of surpassing assininity, and it is riotous to watch him squirm when his fellow officers snare him in their cruel humiliation plot. But once Parolles is undone, there is a heroic poignance in this twit's stubborn conviction that he can go on - that ''Simply the thing I am shall make me live.'' He exemplifies the compassionate spirit of a play that sees people as ''a mingled yarn, good and ill together'' and the world as containing a ''place and means for every man alive.''
There are many other strong, fully rounded performances. The play's exceptionally sensible and appealing elder characters are particularly brilliant: Robert Eddison's mellifluous but acerbic Lord Lafeu; John Franklyn-Robbins's circumspect King of France, who exercises power by sheer force of personality rather than by bombast, and Margaret Tyzack's elegant and maternal Countess, who is rendingly torn between love for her supercilious son and the ward he spurns. Only Miss Tyzack's relative youth prevents her from completely equaling the transcendent Countess contributed by Peggy Ashcroft to this production at its inception.
Though the departure of Miss Ashcroft hasn't harmed this ''All's Well,'' there's been some slippage since I saw it at London's Barbican Center last year: the smaller stage space on Broadway has cramped some of the staging and the set, and the expository first act seems more raggedly paced. In addition, some of the play's problems, then and now, remain unsolved. The bland Philip Franks is a handsome Bertram, but neither he nor Mr. Nunn have found a way to make us believe that this opaquely written, petulant cad would be appealing to Helena or would undergo a sudden conversion in the final scene. Geoffrey Hutchings, with a crook-backed posture and twangy accent, finds charm and sadness but few laughs in the misbegotten clown Lavache.
Yet Mr. Nunn seems to recognize that he can't work all the miracles necessary to make all go well with ''All's Well.'' He asks us to accept this open-ended work, whose title is not to be taken at face value, as the ambiguous, imperfect creation that it is. While he opens the evening with a couple waltzing rhapsodically in the wintry light, the closing waltz for Bertram and Helena pointedly breaks that promise: the ostensibly reconciled lovers pull apart from each other in mid-step and walk side by side but separately into the dark. It's not the happy finale of a comedy - just the perfect ending for this rare production that captures the elusive glow of a play as melancholy and peculiarly radiant as a lunar eclipse.