Canadian Stage presents an oft-ignored comedy as part of its Shakespeare in High Park
All’s Well That Ends Well (now playing at High Park throughout the summer) isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays. It’s easy to see why: it’s a strange mix of comedy and things that aren’t very comedic at all, where happy endings aren’t assured by marriages and nothing falls easily into place.
It’s a strange choice for Canadian Stage to mount for their annual Shakespeare in High Park event, but a charmingly unique one for all that.
Helen loves Bertram, and is willing to do anything to get her man: whether that means striking out to cure the king of illness or following her beau onto the battlefield. The machinations of love and war begin to look startlingly similar as she works out a plan to turn a reluctant lover into a husband.
The stage as you walk into the outdoor amphitheatre is stylistically sparse, with cut-out shards of white and black raining down in the background, and a series of chairs scattered about the stage. The staging itself isn’t always clear–why the king is hidden behind piles of chairs at some points I’m not sure–but there are some really fun moments, particularly in scenes of war, where the tables and chairs double for battle terrain and there’s an exciting chaos of tumbling furniture crashing across the stage, or when we get a bird’s eye view of two lovers in bed thanks to some clever use of sheets.
Tonally, the production has a strong sense of irony and leans often on the absurd, mixing modern-day dialogue with the Shakespearean text. The results feel surprisingly hip, especially during the added monologues delivered with cool and self-deprecating wryness by Rachel Jones as Lavatch, reimagined here from clown to a boozy former mistress to the dead count. There’s a healthy sense of camp that carries a lot of the play’s darker moments by exaggerating them–a clever way to get around a lot of the play’s more unpleasant proceedings.
It all feels slick and stylish without sacrificing the bawdy humour that the Bard is known for, aided by a number of fun, scene-setting funk tracks and a series of energetic, likeable performances.
As Helen, Mina James plays up the character’s awkward, dorky charm. She has a girl-next-door likeability that plays well with the oft-denigrated Helen, and her tortured love for Bertram is evident in her every glance. It’s a fun performance that balances humour with sweetness.
Meanwhile, Qasim Khan utterly steals every scene he’s in as Parolles, Bertram’s wingman. His charisma and comedic timing are undeniable, and his overly-smooth body language had the audience laughing before he so much as spoke a word. His exaggerated playboy personae melts convincingly into a more complicated struggle with sexual identity that Khan carries off with wonderfully campy energy.
Ultimately, this adaptation figures the Parolles character as a product of and response to toxic masculinity, but some conflation with homosexuality and femininity still comes with a few unintended side effects: the queer character is still figured as the conniving, weak-willed coward, likeable though he is. I think it goes to show how complex the nature of gender really is that the character feels both subversive and troubling at the same time.
Rounding out the cast is Kaleb Alexander as Bertram, handsome and squirrelly with a bunch of great reactions to the chaos around him, and Rachel Jones as Lavatch, whose turn as the martini-toting mistress and de facto narrator is fearlessly clownish. They’re all supported by a uniformly solid supporting cast, who leap about with such evident enjoyment it’s hard not to find it infectious.
Ultimately, this is a hip and complex interpretation of a much-ignored classic, one that had the audience laughing throughout, even during some of the more disturbing elements of the play. As the lights go down, you’re not entirely sure that all really is well — but the play isn’t interested in a simple happy ending, and it’s that willingness to play with the unpleasant elements of this “comedy” that makes this production so intriguing. Go see it — it’s fun and stylish and backs it up with ample brains and fine performances.
- All’s Well That Ends Well is performed in repertory with Hamlet at the High Park Amphitheatre (1873 Bloor Street West).
- Performances run until September 4th with rotating 8pm performances every day save Mondays.
- Tickets are free for children 14 and under and pay-what-you can at the door for adults with a suggested contribution of $20. Advance tickets are $25 in advance and can be purchased online.
- Seating is first come, first served.
Photo of Mina James by Cylla von Tiedemann.