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I’m not seeing the new RSC All’s Well That Ends Well production – directed by Nancy Meckler – until tomorrow, but last night I was sandwiched between an actor friend and that other species of human being in the Dirty Duck, a non-actor friend. The actor friend is in said production and the non-actor friend is of the academic persuasion who is an enthusiastic theatre goer. (This is of course the perfect metaphor for my existence in straddling the two worlds).

The words “problem play” came up – as they tend to do in relation to discussion of a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, including All’s Well – and this morning I find myself thinking a bit about the conversation. Ultimately “problem play” is problematic as a category, but the specifics of what caught my interest were two interrelated comments by the people on either side of me. The non-actor recounted that Judi Dench had said in an interview that Helena was a stalker (I’ve found it attributed to Gregory Doran in a repost of a Financial Times piece here), a position she agrees with. The actor disagreed which led to a discussion about how audiences engage with plays and how different audience members read things into their viewings that can completely contradict each other.

My input into this discussion was to note that these two aspects of both Helena and Bertram (i.e., stalker or romantic in the first case; total creep or trapped human being in the second) can be read into a single performance because they’re both present in the text. My actor friend went further and said that the characters can be both at the same time, which is when the light bulb went off in my head – perhaps not in a very revolutionary way – about the phrase “problem play”.

What we have on one side is the Judi Dench/Greg Doran (quite possibly flippant) remark about Helena as stalker. It is a phrase that feeds into media narratives, which prefer simple things, which is precisely why it’s been lodged in my friend’s brain for a decade now. But it is redolent of the uncomplicated black/white view of the world that leaves no room for nuance. And because we as human beings seem to like to categorize things into uncomplicated boxes that are easily labelled, saying Helena is a stalker falls into that.

Yet, Bertram rejects Helena on the basis of class, stating to the King of France once Helena has chosen her husband:

But follows it, my lord, to bring me down

Must answer for your raising? I know her well.

She had her breeding at my father’s charge.

A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain

Rather corrupt me ever.

(II.3.113-117)

George Bernard Shaw admired Helena as a New Woman and she has the blessing of the Countess of Roussillion, Bertram’s mother so branding her a stalker simplifies the character within the confines of a problematic narrative (turning the “problem play” phrase on its head).

Yet what most interests me is the idea that in performance the multiple aspects of character can breathe. If the actor gets the motivation “right” then there is that pull and tug of sympathy and absolute disgust at the character’s behavior. But as long as the motivations are understandable, then the audience can see both the nasty and the noble sides of human nature in one person, like it’s there in all of us.

I wonder, therefore, if these plays labelled “problem” plays are discussed in these ways not because the twentieth century was finally ready for them but because they didn’t fit into the simple black and white narratives of print culture. Yes, their sexual mores were problematic for the Victorians (who weren’t averse to their equivalent of page three “girls”), but perhaps it was the complexities of human nature that the labellers couldn’t cope with: the better and lesser angels of human nature present in one character (several characters in fact).

And I’m with George Bernard Shaw: I love Helena. I think she totally rocks.