All’s Well That Ends Well – it’s a phrase we all use, but are we all familiar with the play? I suggest not; which is rather perplexing, because of the three Shakespearean Problem Plays (the others being Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) this is the play that has the greatest potential to be a crowd-pleaser. And Blanche McIntyre’s current production for the RSC demonstrates that quality in an often hilarious, always thought-provoking, occasionally confusing way.
In a nutshell – orphan Helena was taken into care by the kindly Countess of Rossillion but has fallen in love her son, Bertram. The Countess is fine with this; Bertram not so much, as he feels his status is somewhat better than marrying “a poor physician’s daughter”. Reluctantly he weds her on the instruction of the King of France, who owes Helena a favour for having saved his life (long story). But Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars on his wedding night with his pal Parolles (who’s no better than he ought to be.) Helena follows him and tricks him into bed by pretending to be Diana, a local girl with whom Bertram has become infatuated (we need to suspend disbelief on that front). Helena becomes instantly pregnant (it worked that way in those days) and, following a public humiliation at the French court, Bertram eventually agrees to stick with Helena; thus all’s well that ends well.
McIntyre has brought 17th century France and Florence bang up to date with a 2022 world of social media, online gaming, smartphones and selfies. This contemporary setting works well for the play’s characterisations and interactions, and of course has the prospect of opening up the play to a younger generation of theatregoers. However, I’m not sure that Helena’s magic “prescriptions” that she dispenses to transform the health of the ailing King of France quite make sense in what must also be a world of advance scientific breakthroughs – we need to suspend disbelief on that front too. But it’s a fun concept – and, if anything, could have been taken a little further. The back projections of social media interaction never stay there for long, and I don’t think there was much in the way of trolling, which would have been very relevant!
Robert Innes Hopkins has designed a fascinating structure that looms on top of or over the stage the whole time, like a huge shuttlecock. It works pretty well – reminding you of perhaps a conservatory at the Rossillion residence, or a tarpaulined tent in the war scenes. The costumes show a nice divide between the haves and have nots – the Countess wears classy trouser suits, Bertram and the King are a dapper pair of clothes horses, and Helena makes do with something pleasant and practical from Primark. The military fatigues are stock standard camouflage gear, and Parolles comes dressed in a pseudo-military, pseudo-flamboyant outfit, reflecting the character’s shallowness and duplicity. There’s a very effective scene where Parolles gets all his kit off apart from his comic book hero underpants, and especially removes a sturdy stocky torso covering, exposing himself to the elements rather like Edgar’s Mad Tom, thereby revealing that, underneath it all, this big wannabe burly hero is actually just a bit of a weakling like you or me.
Some extremely good performances brighten up the show enormously – and maybe highlight the fact that one or two of the performances are perhaps slightly tentative. Rosie Sheehy commands the stage from the start as the forthright Helena, her voice full of confidence and assertiveness, perfect for the role of the young woman who knows what exactly she wants and is determined to get it at all costs. Claire Benedict’s Countess is superbly dignified, fair-minded, and naturally gracious; it’s not surprising that she would have extended her kindness to looking after Helena.
It struck me that Shakespeare doesn’t give the actor playing Bertram many memorable juicy lines to establish his full character, but Benjamin Westerby makes a good job of portraying his young callousness and poor decision-making. Bruce Alexander is very good as the King of France, all wheezy and feeble at first, then properly regal later; he comes into his own in the final scene where he adjudicates in the Bertram/Helena/Diana love triangle, with beautifully timed vocal tics and challenging expressions.
Among the lesser characters I really enjoyed the performance by Simon Coates as Lafew, the old courtier who’s seen it all and naturally gets the better of a jumped-up little chappie like Parolles in a series of truly hilarious vocal skirmishes. I also loved Eloise Secker as the Younger Dumain, for whom the pricking of pomposity comes as a fine art. Perhaps best of all, Jamie Wilkes’ Parolles is a wonderful comic creation; if ever the phrase all mouth and trousers was designed to fit anyone, it would be this fellow. Mr Wilkes gives us some terrific breaking the fourth wall moments, full of braggadocio for anyone who will stop still and listen until he’s captured and becomes the biggest Squealer since Animal Farm. It’s a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining; he makes you wonder why All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t get performed more.
The final moment on stage (which I shan’t reveal) simply and effectively drives home the uncertain future that faces the young couple. This isn’t all sweetness-and-light, it’s a tale full of bitterness and disloyalty which the production conveys extremely well. I confess I occasionally lost track of what was going on, particularly with the war scenes, and the D-Rum concept, and the energy did sag occasionally. But I thought this was a very brave stab at bringing back a rarely performed play and giving it a new relevance for today. Lesson: beware of girls in fluorescent wigs at discos.
Production photos by Ikin Yum