I’m deep into Shakespeare territory now with over thirty of his plays watched and reviewed since the pandemic struck. Inevitably I’m covering off some of the less well known and least revived pieces but that’s where the RSC and Globe collections have been really helpful. The latter has provided access for my latest foray, All’s Well That Ends Well, which I’ve only seen once on stage before … and that was really because I wanted to see Judi Dench rather than the play itself.
It really is rather an oddity of a piece; Bernard Shaw positively admired some aspects of it which instantly marks it out as atypical. Generally lumped together with other so called “problem plays” there is some highly questionable morality at work especially in the deployment of that Elizabethan/Jacobean plot resolver the “bed trick” used to finally ensnare the recalcitrant leading man – see also Measure For Measure or the rather more tamed down version in Much Ado About Nothing. All’s Well also shares common ground with the other two in the person of the capable heroine, Helena, who against all the diktats of the time takes her future into her own hands and succeeds in curing the French King’s ailment where all other (male) doctors have failed. She also relentlessly pursues down her man – although why she bothers, I can’t think. Shaw, again, was particularly admiring of the character and both she and the Countess are clearly the driving forces of the plot.
The Countess is usually a role given to more mature performers (e.g., the aforementioned Dench) but in this version she is rather younger which I felt gave the character more credibility as Bertram’s mother rather than, seemingly, his grandmother. Delightfully the role is taken by the fabulous Janie Dee who is always a pleasure to watch so that came as a very nice surprise. Though the Countess is clearly in charge, Dee plays her as also having the common touch in some earthy exchanges with the clown Lavache (a pleasingly dry performance from Colin Hurley) and shows her tender side in her dialogue with her erstwhile daughter in law. I haven’t seen Dee playing Shakespeare before – she should do more! Meanwhile a luminous Ellie Piercy makes Helena a woman of increasing confidence and ability and is particularly strong in the various soliloquies. Although the role is fairly minor, I also enjoyed Sophie Duval’s knowing turn as the Widow of Florence although her willingness to compromise her own daughter clearly comes from a different age.
And so, what of the men? Bertram is a terribly difficult role to get right – he’s so childishly obsessed with himself and rank that he generally comes across as completely unlikeable. Sam Crane, however, emphasises the young man’s relative immaturity and seems to suggest that he doesn’t so much reject Helena and make unreasonable demands of her as to simply speak before thinking and then have to insist on what he has said as a way of saving face. This makes the character a little more acceptable as a human being but I’m afraid I’m still not buying the complete volte face at the end. The key comic role of the braggart popinjay coward Parolles goes to James Garnon who finds the right level of humour in the character and is particularly good when he more than willingly spills the beans in an effort to save his skin. The real problem here is that the character is basically Falstaff lite and once you have that in your head it’s hard not to regret that it isn’t Falstaff full fat (literally!) Sam Cox has the right level of authority as the King of France, but I don’t think the part calls for much stretching of ability. Peter Hamilton Dyer as a scheming lord makes the most of his opportunities but possibly the best performance comes from Michael Bertenshaw as a permanently outraged Lafeu – at least where Parolles is concerned. I’ve decided that if ever I get involved in a production that’s the role I’m after – casting directors please note.
John Dove’s thankfully brisk direction rather skates over the plot holes and just plays it for what it is – fair enough. The recording takes place as evening draws on which, in the Globe, works its own kind of magic especially for the play’s design by Michael Taylor. This is a feast for the eyes with some beautifully coloured and textured costumes which glow against the monochrome backdrops. However, I did find myself sometimes concentrating on the look of the play rather than what was actually going on. All’s Well? Not quite, but it’s probably as good a version of the play as one is ever likely to see, so if it has flown under your radar up until now, then go for it.
All’s Well That Ends Well is available on the Globe Theatre website – click here
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