Two years ago this month, I wrote a piece on what I call “The Shakespeare Game.” It comes out of the writing class I teach every August in conjunction with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in which the writing focuses on playsâ€”reviewing them, examining the scripts, exploring individual plays’ production histories.
The Shakespeare Game involves coming up with a new directorial concept for a Shakespeare play. Think of the Danes/DiCaprio Romeo + Juliet, set in gang-ridden Miami, for example. This year Shakespeare Santa Cruz is doing two Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet and All’s Well that Ends Well. It’s pretty easy to play the Shakespeare Game with R&J; directors have been doing it for years: inter-racial versions, christian/muslim versions, christian/jewish versions, Civil War versions, and on and on. AWTEW presents more of a challenge.
Simply put, AWTEW isn’t one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. It’s purportedly a comedy, but the ending is not necessarily happy and the characters have questionable motivations and are rather difficult to like. The plot goes something like this:
Helena, an orphaned daughter of a doctor, falls in love with the nobleman Bertram. Bertram is completely uninterested in her because of the difference in their classes. Helena cooks up a scheme in which she will use the knowledge she gained from her father to cure the king of France of a fatal illness, asking for the husband of her choice in reward. She cures the king and chooses Bertram who marries her unwillingly and vows not to consummate the marriage and not to live with her as a husband until she can prove she’s pregnant with his child. He then heads off to fight in a war in Italy as a way of avoiding her. Helena follows Bertram to Italy, where he is romancing Diana, a widow’s daughter. Helena befriends the widow and daughter, wins them over to her plan, and spends a night with Bertram, who (it being night and dark and all) mistakes her for his current infatuation. Bertram returns to France, where, after various upheavals and misunderstandings, he discovers that he has fathered a child by Helena and therefore must live with her as her husband.
This play raises all sorts of unanswerable questions, among them Why would Helena want to waste her time with Bertram? Why does Bertram ditch his Italian love? What hope is there for a happy marriage between Helena and Bertram? and What on earth was Shakespeare thinking of when he wrote this play? Reading the script, I mostly just find myself wanting to whack Helena up the side of the head and point out that her actions are going to bring her nothing but long-term unhappiness.
Soâ€”how to play the Shakespeare Game with AWTEW? How to produce this play in a way that won’t leave the audience feeling disgusted with and distant from the characters? I’ve actually come up with two possibilities.
1. Present the play as a farce and set it in Jane Austen’s England. Make Helena one of Austen’s foolish types, more impressed with a man’s exterior than the person inside. Let the audience enjoy the play by allowing them to feel both wiser than the play’s main characters and simultaneously affectionate towards their foibles. In this kind of a production, Diana can serve as a foil to Helena; she’s far too sensible to waste her time chasing a man who is both superficial and socially “above” her.
2. Set the play in the U.S. in the 1950s. Make poor Helena a woman obsessed with becoming a trophy wife for a wealthy executive who’s too preoccupied with work and too misogynistic to be a real partner in any romantic sense. She can’t see the limits of this role nor can she see how ill-suited she is to it and how illy it will serve her. Again, Diana can be a foil to Helena. In this case, make her and her mom ahead-of-the-curve hippies, who have left these worries about marriage and traditional gender roles behind.
What do you think? Which production would you rather see? What might you do with the script? If you were playing the Shakespeare Game, how might you produce some of his other plays?