All’s Well That Ends Well

Posted on: 30 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Marianne Elliott’s wise and witty production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Sexism, snobbery and a battle between the generations provides the background to Marianne Elliott’s wise and witty production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well at the NT’s Olivier auditorium.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a famous physician, has been raised by the Countess of Rossillion.  She comes to Court and, with one of her late father’s prescriptions cures the King of France of a life-threatening illness.  As a reward, he promises that he will use his power to enable her to marry the man of her choice.  She chooses Bertram, the Countess’ son, with whom she is passionately in love.

Bertram is furiously indignant at being forced to marry a commoner, and declares he will never be her husband unless she gets the ring he wears, and is pregnant with his child: in other words, until the apparently impossible happens.  He then goes off to the wars in Italy, accompanied by Parolles, a swaggering soldier, hoping never to see Helena again.  But our heroine, whether wisely or not, refuses to give him up and this being a magic tale that lives up to its title, a plot is afoot to ensure all ends well.

This is one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic plays, part of that trio of early 17th century works – the others are Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure – which are traditionally referred to as the ‘problem plays’ or ‘dark comedies’.  We are often caught out, lulled by the folktale setting and the autumnal melancholy of the verse, then suddenly chilled by a darker mood, cynical and salacious.

Elliott brings a mixture of genuinely funny comedy and painful shafts of emotion to this bittersweet tale.  But she cannot disguise the fact that this is no masterpiece and indeed there are longeurs.  Nevertheless there is a freshness and maturity about this imaginatively staged production that makes it totally winning.  Rae Smith’s Gothic set places the story in a charming fairytale realm, with Rapunsel-style turrets and delightful animations of owls and wolves and our determined heroine dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood.

However it is the excellent performances that really bring this production so vividly to life, in particular Michelle Terry, who makes a resourceful, touchingly sincere Helena, Clare Higgins a passionately maternal Countess, George Rainsford a golden-haired, vainglorious Bertram, and Oliver Ford Davies the bearded old king who dispenses wisdom to all and sundry.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre's Oliver auditorium

When: Plays in repertory until 30th September

Box Office: 0207 452 3000

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