For All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare took a story from Boccaccio's Decameron and created an ardent young lover whose gallantry and daring are true to romantic tradition in every ideal except gender and class. The tragic constraints on womanhood are revealed even as Shakespeare offers an exhilarating reversal of convention: the heroine Helena transforms tender longing into spiritual resolve and surmounts the social barriers that separate her from her beloved Bertram. Urged on by his mother the Countess, she liberates him from the prison of appearances.
This resonant variation on medieval fairy tales is full of mystery, adventure, ravishing poetry and robust humor. It is also the Bard's most complex and compassionate tribute to feminine strength, as two brilliantly drawn women share in ensuring the enlightened future of the realm.
"All's Well That Ends Well stands out artistically by the sovereign charm of the young Helena and the old Countess of Rossillion, and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly 300 years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very fine mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his life." (The Saturday Review , 1895)
Thus George Bernard Shaw, who spent much ink debunking Shakespeare's godlike literary stature, championed All's Well That Ends Well in the 1890s. As late as 1928 he proclaimed the play too modern for public taste. Director Michael Kahn believes that the work has now come into its time. He ranks it with The Winter's Tale as his favorite romantic comedy and says it can now be embraced not only for its visionary themes but also for the frank blending of styles that Shaw himself hoped would be the great achievement of the 20th-century stage.
Kahn declares "Shakespeare has given us an intriguing tale that is rich in human detail and heightened by the intelligence and full-blooded needs of the characters." He continues, "It is very realistic in its understanding of relationships, and the characters are very recognizable to us now. The problem of youth identifying so intensely with fashion and status is very much with us, as well as, of course, the problem of a young, bright, passionate woman trapped by the codes of a man's world."
Kahn and his award-winning designers have chosen to set the play in 1898, an era when rigid class distinctions were very visible although the entire western world was straining toward emancipation on many levels. It was a time when the cynical stylist Oscar Wilde was undergoing spiritual conversion and Chekhov was portraying a Russian aristocracy in dire need of new blood.
In Kahn's production we will travel with Helena and Bertram across the seasons from France to Italy, and also from backrooms and kitchens to the boudoir and salon, from an elegant palace to a bawdy pensione. The look of Masterpiece Theatre's popular series "Upstairs, Downstairs" and Merchant/Ivory's award-winning film A Room with a View has had a special appeal for modem audiences, because it evokes a time when tradition and change, science and religion, hot passion and cool style were locked in the struggle to dominate a new century. As we approach the turn of the 21st century, we find ourselves again preoccupied with the nature of personal power in an agitated culture. In All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare concludes an uncompromising look at human frailty with a wondrous affirmation of the future.