This season at the National sees the staging of one of Shakespeare’s rarely-performed early tragicomedies. All’s Well That Ends Well is an odd play that presents an array of awkward themes—a refreshing tale of powerful femininity set against a subversion of the typical Elizabethan norms of class and sex. This becomes the backdrop for a love story that is drenched in trickery and seemingly devoid of any love at all. With what must be a satirical title from Shakespeare, we are faced with a dark, fragile tale—something that director Marianne Elliott fully exploits.
This sense that things are not as they seem pervades every aspect of this production. Rae Smith’s set design is dark and imposing upon entering the theatre, yet it transforms seamlessly and subtly throughout. With Peter Mumford’s innovative lighting design, the dark looming hills metamorphose into a sparkling palace or a twinkling Venetian garden, and these transformations are both clever and magical. Similarly, the use of an animated backdrop—different for every scene—is particularly effective without being too obvious as to overtake the central action.
This thematic incongruity continues into some detrimental costume design. Time periods are confusing, as are references to mythology, fairytales and reality. Whatever anachronistic point this is trying to make, it distracts from the action of the play. That said, the references to well-known fairytales are a nice touch and conducted almost solely through costume: Helena sports a red cloak as she sets off on her journey, and her glistening shoes are left under spotlight at the close of the first half.
To accompany Smith’s impressive stage design is a wonderfully magical score from Adam Cork. From the very start the stereo effect of the musicians (seated high above the stage left and right) and the beguiling harmonies create a unique and entrancing atmosphere. This is really quite fantastic and highly effective work from Cork.
The company contains a wealth of performances that are truly mesmerizing. Marvelous delivery, masterful timing and some wonderful casting result in some electric performances. Conleth Hill as Parolles practically steals the show with his swaggering, bolshie presence on stage. Hill is simultaneously a lewd oaf and a lovable rogue—a fine balance to achieve.
Clare Higgins also delivers a commanding performance as the boisterous, emotional Countess of Rossillion. Her formidable stage presence, aided by her extravagant, trailing black gown, keeps the audience on tenterhooks. One moment she is seething with fury, the next she is soothing and kind.
Most exhilarating is Oliver Ford Davies’ portrayal of the King of France. A Shakespeare giant by all accounts, Davies gently dominates the stage upon every appearance, with a perfectly convincing portrayal of one twenty years his senior. Wise and fair, this king rules his subjects with a kindness and equality (both sexual and hierarchical) that would have been idyllic in Elizabethan society, and would be even today.
The most problematic aspect of this play—the skeptical duet of lovers—is even more difficult to overcome in this production. Although Bertram is well cast, Helena is not. George Rainsford offers us a dashingly attractive, yet playful and arrogant Bertram who knows his place in society and won’t take anything less than what he deserves. Helena, however, is not the Helena I would wish for in this particular set-up. Michelle Terry is certainly feisty and shows all the fearless determination of a young woman who is set on defying the conformities of society to get what she wants. But where is her innocence? Her sweetness? Of these she is void. Helena must either be so headstrong in her demands that she appears monomaniacal in her obsession with Bertram, or she should appear as an innocent, heartbroken, wistful young girl who happens to be intelligent enough to engineer the successful obtainment of her desire. Although Terry provides many fine moments throughout the evening, this interpretation of Helena is an unfortunate downside to an otherwise wonderful production.
This is definitely a production to see for the set and music alone. Add to that the several enthralling performances and the £10 ticket promotion associated with this production (thanks to sponsorship from Travelex, almost half the seats in every performance are £10), this still fills the bill as a must-see of the season.
The National Theatre’s All’s Well That Ends Well plays through September 30, 2009 at the Olivier Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX, U.K. Admission is £10-£30. Reservations: +44 20 7452 3000.