The Theatreguide.London Review
All's Well That Ends Well
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2009
All's Well is Shakespeare's most problematic and least often done comedy, but Marianne Elliott's enjoyable new production for the National Theatre triumphs over most of its difficulties through the simple trick of ignoring them and just ploughing straight ahead.
A poor girl does the king a service and is given the hand of the nobleman she loves. But he considers her beneath him and deserts her, forcing her to chase after him and trick him into her bed.
The main problem with this is not Shakespeare's fault but history's. While it probably played quite nicely in his day, modern audiences are likely to consider Helena worth twenty of Bertram and feel he doesn't deserve the good fortune of her catching him in the end.
Director Elliott plays it all as a fairy tale, with an emphasis on the heroine's brave and adventurous quest, putting aside until the last seconds of the play the question of whether the prize is worth the effort. Rae Smith's design openly references sources from Red Riding Hood to the Transylvania of Hammer Films, and animations and shadow puppetry add to the storybook effect.
Michelle Terry plays Helena as the plucky heroine of a girl's-own-adventure book, a bit weepy at moments, but determined to get what she wants. George Rainsford goes far toward excusing Bertram by making him an emotional adolescent playing at swashbuckling so that, as despicable as he frequently is, we can retain the hope that he might develop into something when and if he eventually grows up.
The role of Bertram's mother and Helena's protector has been somewhat reduced in this production, but Clare Higgins does a lot with it by playing her as considerably younger than usual, a woman still able to remember love and sympathise with it. As always, Oliver Ford Davies effortlessly dominates his scenes as the King.
Conleth Hill is droll as Bertram's braggart-coward friend (there to reassure us that there are men even worse than he), and there are strong supporting performances from Michael Thomas and Elliot Levy.
Just accept that Michelle Terry's Helena deserves to get what she wants, whatever your doubts about the value of the trophy, and be happy that Bertram is fortunate enough to get a far better wife than he deserves, and all will indeed be well.
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