All’s Well That Ends Well @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Clare Higgins, George Rainsford, Michelle Terry, Conleth Hill, Michael Mears, Brendan O’Hea, Oliver Ford Davies, Michael Thomas, Elliot Levey, Toy Jayawardena, Jolyon Coy, Robert Hastie, Janet Henfrey, Hasina Haque, Sioned Jones, Cassie Atkinson, Ben Allen, Rob Delaney, Alex Felton, Tom Padley, Oliver Wilson

directed by
Marianne Elliott

The National Theatre’s Travelex programme, offering tickets for a range of productions for just 10, is now in its seventh year. Hanging on to such sponsorship in these straitened times is a major achievement and the NT now offers London theatregoers one of Shakespeare’s rarest comedies at these bargain prices.

All’s Well That Ends Well resonates with echoes of his other mature comedies – Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, Much Ado, Cymbeline and Pericles all spring to mind during this tale of unrequited love and theatrical trickery.

As the play is so seldom performed, it’s worth outlining the plot. Brought up by the kindly Countess of Roussillion, the orphaned Helena uses the medical powers inherited from her physician father to cure the King of France of a lingering illness.

Her reward is to choose a husband but the object of her love, the Countess’ son Bertram, rejects her and goes off to war to avoid consummating the enforced marriage. She follows and, with deception lovingly applied, wins him back.

Whether all ends as well as it could is highly ambiguous in Marianne Elliott’s new staging. A 19th Century fairytale emerges from a monochrome mist, with Clare Higgins’ barking Countess more Wicked Stepmother than grande dame and Michelle Terry’s feisty and coarse-grained Helena donning a hooded red cloak to venture into the woods.

For all the play’s magic cures and ambiguous relationships, the concept feels a little shoehorned, an academic treatise forced on the play like an ill-fitting slipper onto the foot of an ugly sister. Elliott jazzes things up with spurious theatricality: silhouettes, slow-motion sequences, projected animation and dazzling showers of pink petals against a background of musical jollity provided by Adam Cork’s bouncing score.

The second act, moving from France to Florence, is sunnier and altogether less Grimm. The brooding dark towers and flitting animations give way to brightness and hope, as the play opens out from the stifling picture-book court of Oliver Ford-Davies’ crusty King.

There are some fascinating touches in the detail; servants hovering on the perimeter often draw the eye more than the main action. Michael Mears’ Addams Family butler works well, doubled-up (in every sense) with a servant to the King, bent in half, whether through a surfeit of subservience or deformity is not clear.

There’s sprightly humour in Michael Thomas’ Lafew, as he plays nicely with the text in his exchanges with the braggart Parolles. There’s a truth and playfulness in his performance that’s missing elsewhere. Conleth Hill lacks definition and hardly plumbs the comic potential of the swaggerer, although Elliott makes the gulling scenes, were Parolles is tricked into betraying his friends, a lively affair.

If the production lacks grace and insight, toppling too often into dullness, it moves swiftly and has a degree of clarity of storytelling. These strengths make this rare opportunity to see the play, while hardly likely to eclipse memories of Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench, well worth a Travelex tenner.

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