The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Young Girls And Happy Endings

The latest in a series of reviews from 2006 of the BBC Shakespeares...


Famous quotes from AWTEW: There are no famous quotes from AWTEW. The nearest it gets to a famous quote is 'must needs go that the devil drives' but that's actually Shakespeare quoting from something else and anyway the quote should be 'needs must when the devil drives'.

(And the title doesn't count). The fact that there are no famous quotes from AWTEW should give you some idea how good it is.

Top words coined in AWTEW: inaudible and noiseless, plus equivocal, transcendence and that spellchecker favourite, tardily.

AWTEW is a problem. In fact, it's official status is a 'problem play'. That's the category of Shakespeare play reserved for those plays which aren't comic enough to be comedies, which aren't tragic enough to be tragedies, which aren't historical enough to be histories and which aren't romantic enough to be romances. They're kind of like works-in-progress that fell down the back of Shakespeare's desk and didn't get sorted into any particular 'out' tray, but which got dug out and canonified when Ben Johnson was compiling his Big Book Of Bard.

The other two problem plays are Troilus And Cressida and Measure For Measure. Troilus And Cressida, to me, feels like a historical-tragedy which fell apart during the writing process - it's incredibly slow and wordy for the first half, and has a perfunctory non-ending, as though the writer lost interest. But I think the original intention was for it to be another Julius Caesar. However, it seems to have been unaccountably popular during Shakespeare's lifetime; so it is unfair, wrong and awfully beastly of me to write it off.

Measure For Measure isn't a problem for me at all. It's a cautionary tale about power corrupting and acting without conscience. It's also a redrafted, polished, finished, rehearsed and performed piece of work. On the whole I'd put it firmly in the column marked comedy.

AWTEW, though, doesn't seem to have been finished. It feels like one of his comedies, but - even for one of his comedies - it isn't very funny. The plotting is leaden and lacks complication or dramatic interest; it's an hour-long story, tops, stretched out to two and a half. There just isn't enough to it to sustain a whole play and, as a result, it feels horribly ponderous and laboured. It's like BLAH.

In addition, there are the characters. There's Bertram, the handsome block-headed bloke whose behaviour makes no sense (see later). Helena, an archetypical (and stereotypical) girly girl as our heroine - the sort of girl we've seen in several of Shakespeare's other plays, but without any of the depth or spark, and with an added dollop of stupidity, and as wet as a dipstick. On the plus side there's the Countess, a well-drawn character in search of a much better play where they she be given something to do. And there are the comedy roles, Parolles, Lavache, both of whom we have encountered in other guises, in other hose and in other amusingly large feathered hats. Parolles is yet another Bloke Who Likes To Talk Endless Shit All The Time - but he's no Gratiano, no Mercutio, and no, he's not even a Roderigo.

There's evidence for the plays 'unfinished' nature throughout - not just in terms of its sketchy, bare-bones plot , or its cast of cut-and-pastes - but in the dialogue itself. The 'clowns' have some wit, but no brevity, and so their humour gets buried amidst verbosity. There are numerous 'backward' sentences, those awkward poetic conceits where a character waxes metaphorical for a couple of minutes before ever mentioning what it actually is they are waxing about (and whilst it can be argued this is deliberate and 'highbrow', you don't find much of it in Shakespeare's best plays). And finally, speaking of metaphors, there are the poetical place-holders. For instance:

"The hind that would be mated by the lion must die for love."

Now, I don't want to turn into that character from that Fry & Laurie sketch who says that 'Jane Eyre' is 'balls' but I can't help feeling that the above metaphor is rubbish, and given the chance Shakespeare could have knocked up something better - you know, a really juicy metaphor that got under the skin of the issue and illuminated it and provided insight. Instead we are being asked by Helena to visualise her predicament as being like some sort of weird inter-species act of attempted copulation. I mean, she is a hopeless drip of a girl, but even so.

And this follows a speech about how her loved one, Bertram, is a star, and thus distantly above her and unreachable; okay, so it's not as bad as the deer bonking the lion but I can't help feeling we've been here before, and this is merely Shakespeare's metaphorical stock cupboard. (That's his stock cupboard full of metaphors, not a metaphorical stock cupboard itself, though in a way that is also metaphorical, I suppose)

AWTEW is, more or less, Shakespeare's final comedy. Why did he stop writing comedies? Well, there are several possible reasons.

Firstly, Queen Elizabeth had popped the clog majestic, and had been replaced by a queen of a different type, King James. King James naturally had different taste in theatre than his predecessor, and the monarch's taste pretty much dictated which plays could be mounted. King Jimbo certainly seems to have been a fan of Shakespeare, watching several of them in a week at one point, and his favour pretty much cemented Shakespeare as the number one playwright of the day.

So maybe it was a reflection of the King's taste. That said, the King seemed to like Shakespeare's comedies best, so maybe not. So, secondly, maybe it was a reflection of the tastes of the broad audience. Britain was, after all, a state in mourning for Betty The First, and there were all sorts of ominous noises coming from across the channel, and of course there was the terrorist outrage known as 5/11. It was a tricky time, people were nervous, and the Bubonic Plague had come back so people were feeling anxious about their buboes.

Maybe it was due to neither of these, though. Shakespeare, by this time, had hit 40, and had made f*ckloads of cash. He owned half of Stratford. He had a top reputation, and many of his older plays were being revived as part of 'repeat seasons' and 'theme evenings'. And so with new versions of Comedy of Errors and Merchant of Venice doing the rounds, there would have been less of a demand for another comedy from Shakespeare - he would have been competing with himself, and to be honest, he would have probably been repeating himself too.

That's why I think he stopped writing them. He had 'done' the comedy thing, he had taken it as far as he could go with Midsummer, Much Ado and Twelfth and had nothing left to prove. Maybe the demand for new comedies wasn't there any more, either because of the revivals or some public mood-shift. And basically comedy is a young man's game and maybe he wasn't finding things quite as funny anymore. He was thinking darker thoughts, King Lear-sized thoughts, and he couldn't really fit them into plays about twins getting mistaken for each other and girls dressing as boys dressing as girls, and fat drunken men accidentally pissing themselves and bits of let-go-of-my-leg business with a dog.

This mood-shift, and this sense of dissatisfaction, rather colours the three 'problem' plays, as the humour tends to be quite harsh and cynical, and the characters tend to be unsympathetic, acting out of lust rather than love, and behaving selfishly. Maybe Shakespeare was in a bad mood, or maybe he was searching to find a new 'angle', or maybe he was just taking his eye off the ball and plotting black.

But I think the clincher was AWTEW because, even as you watch it, you can feel the writer getting pissed off with it. He doesn't like the characters very much, he's not particularly interested in the situation, and when he gets to the end, he pretty much gives up on it. I suspect writing AWTEW was the bad experience that put Shakespeare off writing comedies, because during the writing of it, he found it wasn't coming naturally, and he was losing enthusiasm and had no drive to re-draft scenes that weren't sparking. I also get a sense of him becoming resentful towards having to write silly, two-dimensional comedy characters - and, in particular, of writing about young people. Shakespeare was entering the reactionary old fart zone of his life, and he wanted to write grown-up love stories, that were actually about love itself rather than transvestive mix-ups. And, of course, he wanted to write about old men shouting in the rain and going bonkers.

That's my gut feeling towards this play. Shakespeare, aged 40, was trying to write the sort of play that he wrote when he was in his twenties - the sort of play that was currently being repeated up the road. He must have been asking himself 'What's the point?'. And maybe he felt he needed to move in a new direction, to give the audience something they hadn't seen before, rather than churning out more of the same knockabouts, because at this stage in his career he didn't need to churn. And with Othello and Hamlet he'd already hit a motherload in themes; that's where his interest lay, that was an area in which he could still innovate, and that's how he could pull audiences, rather than competing against his own back catalogue and up-and-coming bright young pretenders.

The fact that his early plays were repeated is quite interesting; just like today, there were audiences who wanted to revisit shows they had already seen, and maybe - like with Dad's Army - there was a sense of 'I watched this with my parents, now I'd like to watch it with my kids'. And, even though there was an astonishing amount of linguistic and theatrical growth during this time, the old plays wouldn't have seemed 'old' in the way that, say, Fawlty Towers does now. Broadly speaking, people still spoke the same way, they still dressed the same, the cultural reference points hadn't shifted all that much, and special effects hadn't moved on a great deal either (though with the introduction of custom-built theatres there had been some innovations - trapdoors, incidental music, smoke and an early form of colour separation overlay).

Also by this stage Shakespeare is pretty unique in that he is the only one of his 'generation' of writers left, the rest having been seen off with the plague or due to knife-based altercations over bar bills in Deptford (Deptford being almost as dodgy then as it is now). He was kind of like a Paul McCartney figure; he was the survivor with the unbeatable back catalogue, but not quite as cutting-edge as he used to be. He was the One To Beat; he had, as Phil Collinson might say, 'raised the bar' and now it was up to Johnson and chums to leap it.

Bearing all this in mind - the feeling of 'been there, done that' - and the lack of enthusiasm I sense in this play, and the curious dichotomy of Troilus and Cressida being a commercial success whilst being a rubbish play... I wonder just how much control over his subject matter Shakespeare had. The assumption seems to be that he decided what he wanted to write, but maybe it was more like in Shakespeare in Love, and - even at this stage in his career – he’d be taking on commissions, or at least would have to convince co-producers to put up the money for each venture. That would, I think, go some way to explaining Troilus & Cressida - maybe it was a commercial venture, a Pearl Harbour to help fund his less crowd-pleasing stuff like Othello. Kind of like the way that John Cusack keeps on making crap romantic comedies so that he can fund his Grosse Point Blanks, High Fidelitys and Being John Malkovitchs.

Maybe that's what happened with AWTEW. Some executive went 'Oi Bill! I've read this great Italian story in Decamaron, it'll make you laugh your tits off, honestly it will, this bird tricks her husband into getting her up the duff, and if you write it, I'll pay for you to put it on... what's that? A usurped prince spends four hours umming-and-ahhing about whether or not to kill his father-in-law? No, I'll pass on that idea thanks - it lacks warmth, and I'm not convinced you can write sympathetic female characters. What we're really looking for is the next Julius Caesar.'

Assuming for a moment I am correct about this being an unfinished (and hence unperformed) work, that this is some sort of 'failed attempt' at a play rescued from Shakespeare's Deleted Items, and AWTEW becomes much more interesting (this is the only way to make AWTEW much more interesting, except possibly an all-nude production). Because it gives you an insight into how he put plays together - roughing out a first draft, and then going back through it, adding sub-plots and plot complications and moulding the characters into three dimensions; this would have been in conjunction with rehearsals, with the script being tightened along the way. It's the sort of thing you can see in also that other out-take, Timon of Athens, but I'm getting ahead of myself there. But you get a sense of the first-draftness of some of his work; characters building or shrinking during the course of a play, plot threads introduced and forgotten, even some egregious continuity errors in Two Gentlemen Of Verona. I don't get the sense of Shakespeare being the sort of writer who wrote scene breakdowns or bullet-pointed story beats; it all came instinctively, unplanned, in a big dribble.

Shakespeare's put some markers down for things to develop later. Lavatch mentions that he has decided to leave his pregnant wife - and then this is never brought up again. I think maybe it is a vestige of an idea for a sub-plot, doing a bit of the old 'thematic mirroring'. Similarly the ruse that Bertram uses against Parolles - of betraying ones true self when deceived - is not a million miles away from the ruse that Helena uses against Bertram. Because, you see, this is thematically what the play is about. As Helena puts it 'All's well, that ends well, still the fine's the crown, whate'er the course, the end is the renown'.

You see, 'All's well that ends well' doesn't mean what I first took it to mean. It doesn't mean a happy ending and all being dandy and beano and whizzer and chips. What it actually means is 'if something ends well, then that makes up for anything untoward which has happened along the way'. Or, to put it snappier, 'the ends justify the means'. It's about lies being used to uncover the truth.

Unfortunately, that's been done before. AWTEW resembles the last act of The Merchant of Venice stretched to a whole play. Much Ado does the whole idea much more cleverly, with people faking conversations for the benefit of eavesdroppers. Even As You Like It extracts a fair bit of juice from the idea... grape. AWTEW by comparison seems obvious and ultimately pointless. Fortunately Quilly Willy would sort it all out and throw a blinder with Measure for Measure, which feels like the twentieth draft of the play for which AWTEW was the first.

Weirdly, this being a not-great play, the BBC adaptation is pretty good. The scenes are beautifully lit, all shadows and spot-lit faces, like in those murky old Dutch paintings of the 17th century, you know Rembrandt and his gloomy ilk. BLACK! The performances aren't quite there, though - a few of the actors are on default setting, saying the lines with fruity abandon without knowing what it is they are actually supposed to mean. The worst for this is Donald Sinden, as ripe as a plum pie, but signifying a great deal of bugger all.

Other than that it's a fine cast. Michael 'Marmalade' Hordern. Peter 'Lenient' Jeffrey. Kevin 'Rumours of death' Stoney. Nickolas Grace is in there too, and Robert Lindsay, again. Of note there's also Paul 'Morning Sarge' Brooke - turns up in lots of things.


The plot? Oh, let's see how quickly I can get this over with. Pretty much bugger all happens, so it shouldn't take long.

King of France is on his death bed. Helena is the daughter of a lowly physician (now dead) but the reason she's sad is not because he is (now dead) but because she's in love with the handsome Bertram, the Count of Rousillon, who is not interested in her. However, when Helena cures the King of France, he tells her that he will grant her whatever she wishes, and so she says she'd like Bertram to be her husband. At this, against the King's wishes, Bertram f*cks off to join the Foreign Legion in Florence with his servant Parolles. He says he will not be her husband unless she 'canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to'. Bit of a tall order, you might think, but if you do think that, boy do you think wrong.

You see, Helena follows Bertram to Florence (everyone back in France assumes she is dead, like she’s Kevin Stoney). She learns that Bertram has been chatting up a young girl, Diana. Diana isn't keen on Bertram, so Helena comes up with a cunning plan. She will substitute herself for Diana and sleep with Bertram (with the lights off and the curtains well and truly drawn). Whilst shagging him, she will get his ring off him and give him one of hers (no double entendre intended). This plan, despite being obviously fifty-four types of bollocks, goes like a dream.

Having had his wicked way with Diana, and hearing that Helena is dead, Bertram decides to return to France (to marry a girl he fancies). On his arrival, the King forgives him for f*cking off to join the Foreign Legion and says, yes, you can marry the new girl if you like. But then it is discovered that Bertram has Helena's ring on his finger. The King accuses Bertram of murdering her. Bertram denies this, saying he was given the ring by a girl in Florence. But who should turn up but that girl of Florence, Diana. Bertram admits to sleeping with her, saying she was a bit of a slapper - a 'common gamester to the camp' - but Diana denies ever giving him the ring. Diana says that Patrollus can be a witness to prove the fact that Bertram had been chatting her up though and Patrollus attests to this. Bertie is f*cked.

However, who should then waddle in but Helena, up the duff with Bertram's baby! Yes, she is alive - and not only that, but she has Bertram's ring and is expecting his child. APROPOS OF F*CK ALL Bertram decides he now loves her. All that’s left is for the King to go to Diana and to make her the same offer he made to Helena i.e. she can choose her husband which is how we got into this mess in the first place, d'oh!

Yes, it even has a Scooby Doo ending.

And that is it. Expect for a sub-plot with Patrollus, where Bertram suspects him of being a coward, and not French Foreign Legion material, so he arranges for Patrollus to be kidnapped and blindfolded and presented to Bertram and his mates under the misapprehension that they are the enemy. Bertram and his mates speak a nonsense language, and get a soldier to act as 'interpreter'. Sure enough, Bertram shows his true colours - which are mostly yellow - and tells the 'interpreter' all the army's secrets and slags off Bertram into the bargain.

To be fair, this sub-plot starts of quite funny, with Patrollus humiliating himself, but it slides clumsily into something quite vicious and nasty, and Bertram loses our sympathies and instead we feel sorry for Patrollus who is clearly terrified out of his wits. So there is some laughter here but it is increasingly uneasy and uncomfortable, as Patrollus believes he is about to be executed and screams for mercy...

Writing up the above synopsis, it kind of brought home to me just how 'unfinished' this play is. A lot of quite major characters haven't been given names - 1st Lord, 2nd Lord, 1st Soldier and so forth - and the re-use of 'Capulet' suggests not a lot of thought went into surnames either. The Countess, who is on stage for quite a lot of the play really does have nothing to do. Nor does Lavache, really, or Lafeu.

There is also the problem of the last act (that's everything from 'having had his wicked way with Diana' in the above synopsis). None of it makes any kind of sense. It is a mess. The fact that Patrollus is a witness to Bertram's courtship of Diana has not previously been mentioned in the play, and just comes completely out of the blue. The King's forgiveness and then sudden belief that his son is a murderer is nonsensical. The fact that Bertram doesn't suspect that he has slept with Helena after he learns that the woman he slept with gave him her (Helena's ring) makes him look like a berk. And then the Bun Ex Oven ending... with Bertram suddenly deciding he does love Helena... I mean, what?

The whole 'back from the dead' thing was done so much better in Much Ado. And the Bed Trick, silly as it is, wasn't quite so unbelievable in Measure 4 Measure. Maybe Helena was a really good f*ck or something, maybe that's why Bertram changes his mind about her.

The sense of the play isn't helped, it has to be said, by the staging. Some exterior scenes have been set indoors, and Act 5 Scene 1 - a crucial scene in terms of plot clarity - has been cut entirely. But it is pretty to look at.

But, anyway, there you have it. Themes? The ends justify the means, without exception, and women should not be allowed to choose their husbands, and to make somebody tell the truth, keep them in the dark. Young people are flighty with their affections which makes old people who know better feel rather sad and rueful. Oh, and Kings are full of really stupid ideas, don't listen to them whatever you do.

Never mind all that. It's kazoo fanfare time.


It's time for Jonny's Most Pukka Shakespeare list.

Yes, I have been keeping a tally. And now I've done all the comedies, I can share with you my Official Pukka ranking on my Official Pukkometer.

Those plays marked with a * are essential. You have been recommended.

Those plays marked with a + are for completists only. You have been warned.

So here goes,


In reverse order.

12: The Merry Wives of Windsor +
11: All's Well That Ends Well+
10: Love's Labour's Lost +

9: The Taming of the Shrew
8: The Two Gentlemen of Verona
7: Measure for Measure
6: The Comedy of Errors

5: As You Like It *
4: Twelfth Night *
3: The Merchant of Venice *
2: Much Ado About Nothing *

which means that the most pukka Shakespeare comedy is:

1: A Midsummer Night's Dream *


Next up: Christ on a bike, it's King Lear

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