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All's Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - feisty, prickly and topical, as well | reviews, news & interviews

All's Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - feisty, prickly and topical, as well

All's Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review - feisty, prickly and topical, as well

Shakespeare problem play gets a spirited reading that chimes with our #metoo times

Pooling resources: Ellora Torchia and Martina Laird in 'All's Well That Ends Well'Marc Brenner

It's the people who are problematic, not the play. That's one take-away sentiment afforded by Caroline Byrne's sparky and provocative take on All's Well That Ends Well, that ever-peculiar Shakespeare "comedy" (really?) whose title is in ironic contrast to its emotional terrain.

Making her debut at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, having previously directed The Taming of the Shrew on the Globe's main stage, Byrne widens the abyss between the sexes that has always marked out this troublesome late play. Not for the first time, its supposedly tidy resolution makes one wonder what further difficulties await the central couple seen exiting the candlelit stage as if awaiting a twilit doom. 

The basic scenario, heaven knows, can be interpreted any number of ways: what possible reason is there for the orphaned physician's daughter, Helena (the open-faced Ellora Torchia), to fall so steadfastly and hard for the caddish nobleman Bertram (Will Merrick), who speaks candidly of "my sick desires" and is described as one who treats "wives like monsters": what a catch, right?

But as such thematically kindred works as the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion bear out, the heart wants what it wants. So, from our first sight of the plaintive Helena taking sad-eyed and unspeaking to the stage, one is aware of a "poor unlearned virgin" who will discover more than she might have bargained for about the predatory male psyche. Indeed, she'd qualify as a founder member of the Bard's own #metoo brigade were there not the complicating factor that Bertram is at least honest enough at the start to warn Helena off him. The tension of the play lies in Helena's refusal to read the tea leaves. 

Small wonder nonetheless that this play comes with its own sisterhood as a bulwark against rampant blokishness. In the text at least, the words "I have tonight dispatched 16 businesses" read as a largely neutral account of a packed schedule which Bertram goes on to enumerate. Not so here: instead, the line lingers in the air as the naked confession of an unbridled horndog, to which the audience responds in kind. (Somewhat overly so in the case of several to my left who behaved throughout as if they were at a panto.) With regard to nakedness, the advisory on the Globe website about male nudity in the production seems a shade OTT, however much a spa pool sitting just beneath Colin Richmond's shimmeringly reflective set gets pressed into use by both genders. (Among the strippers-off: Nigel Cooke, pictured above, who plays the ailing King of France restored to health by Helena's medicaments.) 

Previous productions have played up its Chekhovian affinities (Trevor Nunn famously so in one of his finest-ever Shakespeares) or its qualities as a fairytale run rampant, with Bertram as a fairly dubious Prince Charming. Byrne and dramaturg Annie Siddons take a more robust, devil-may-care approach that at times tilts the play towards a de facto musical: numerous songs, several of a Kurt Weillian hue, get parcelled out amongst a company few of whom would seem to be natural singers. But this gutsiness turns out to be a clever stratagem once the narrative machinations take hold and the entirely smitten Helena participates in one of those Shakespearean "bed tricks" intended here to ensnare Bertram once and for all. 

For once, one feels a newly moist-eyed Bertram chastened by behaviour that shocks his disapproving mum, the Countess of Rossillion (the ever-welcome Martina Laird), who speaks at one point of preferring Helena, her ward, to the Countess's own flesh and blood. (Elsewhere, one is transfixed by the image of an airborne Helena hovering above Bertram like some inescapable force.) And there's more than a touch of Malvolio to the gender-blind casting of Imogen Doel's haughty, sumptuously attired Parolles (the second L is dropped in the programme), whose comeuppance sheds the character of both fancy dress and, more crucially, attitude.  (Imogen Doel, pictured above

Following the interpolation of soft-rock lyrics like "grow baby / grow baby" that I don't recall from the text, Byrne's production introduces an infant into the (heavily edited) closing scene as one further instance of Helena's hold over the wanton Bertram. "Will you be mine now you are doubly won?" is Helena's climactic question, which in this reckoning comes with no real reply. Instead, this newfound family submit themselves to "an unknown fear" and an unknowable future: all's well that ends well, maybe, unless all concerned find themselves reliving the title of an earlier Shakespeare entry - in which case, love's labour is really and truly lost. 

For once, one feels a newly moist-eyed Bertram chastened by behaviour that shocks his disapproving mum


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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