One of the Bard’s most challenging plays seems to be a tragic love story but has much deeper undertones of class distinction—particularly when it comes to the consequences of being caught out in a skin-saving lie.
In director Marti Maraden’s new production (the sixth at Stratford), it falls to Lavache (exceptionally well-rendered by Tom Rooney) to lead both his betters (not least of which is Martha Henry’s steadfast portrayal of the widowed Countess of Rossillion) and the audience through the vast array of commentary about the affairs of the heart (including his own) as arranged by the powerful or decreed by royalty.
The role is filled with droll lines (“No madam, ‘tis not so well that I am poor, though many of the rich are damned.”) and zinging repartee (Parolles: O my knave, how does my old lady? Lavache: So that you had her wrinkles and I her money, I would she did as you say. Parolles: Why I say nothing. Lavache: Marry, you are the wiser man, for many a man’s tongue shakes out his master’s undoing. To say nothing, to do nothing, to know nothing, to have nothing, is to be a great part of your title, which is within a very little of nothing.). Happily, director and actor are on the same page, fully utilizing Rooney’s visage and body language to add depth, insight and much humour to the tour guide’s part. Unforgettable is his silent walk-on, telling stare and shrugging walk-off that speaks volumes without a word and marvellously rekindles the tenor and tone that has been so carefully crafted before the interval.
Purposely decked out by the tailor-from-the-land-of-gaudy (designer Christina Poddubiuk’s vision for the advocate-of-the-absurd and his admirers/detractors has been brilliantly realized by the talented elves in the wardrobe/wigs and makeup departments), Parolles (Juan Chioran’s Act I thesis on the subject of virginity is an early highlight) soars through his journey as outlandish braggart and self-serving loudmouth with such truly pathetic conviction that the tears sprouted by Lafew (Stephen Ouimette)—“Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon”—most certainly were added to by any human in the house who’s ever been caught in a lie but lived to fight another day.
Parolles’ false bravura, cowardice and treachery are cruelly put on display when Bertram, Count of Rossillion (Jeff Lillico) and the troops under his command, capture the hapless Count’s aide and blindfold him. Speaking in the foreign language of gibberish (initially, one of the funniest scenes in all Shakespeare) and with the assistance of a trumped-up interpreter (Randy Hughson plumbs the depths of the laugh-well with ease, even as the Dumaine brothers—Ben Carlson, Patrick McManus—learn more about themselves than bargained for), the terrified wimp reveals any secret asked under the threat of sudden beheading.
This ferocious humiliation has the curious effect of inspiring the “victim.” Having been exposed, the reborn boaster opts to accept himself as he is—warts and all: “There’s place and means for everyman alive. I’ll after them.” With just a few lines, the laughing stock proves his innate humanity and suddenly earns the respect he’s never had.
The incredible payoff for this chain of events soon follows. Bertram was forced to marry Helena (Daniela Vlaskalic whose Stratford début shows promise)—a woman beneath his station but whose inherited elixir of life (her father a noted chemist) saves no less than the King of France (veteran Brian Dennehy, but newcomer to Stratford, can’t find the cadence and colour of the largely experienced Thespians in his Court, yet carries his role with savvy timing and first-rate reactions as the events unfold) who has promised a husband in return for the cure.
On their wedding night, Bertram runs away to fight in Tuscany, preferring to risk his spoiled life rather than bed such a common girl. He does allow that if Helena can get hold of his heirloom ring and become pregnant with his child, then the marriage will proceed.
But be careful what you demand. In a marvellous conspiracy of shamelessly used/abused women (Widow Capilet, Fiona Reid; her daughter Diana, Leah Oster) Helena manages to consummate the shaky union (Bertram thinks he’s bedding Diana …) and claim the ring.
The final scene has been a puzzle since its creation. With Parolles looking on, his master is caught in a fib the size of Ontario. Does he face death and scorn? Not quite. Apparently, Bertram decides to accept and cherish his bride so the title doth come true. But will he truly love his pregnant wife? As surely as the closing tableau offered no clues, time will not tell. JWR