Here's something I don't get to do very often: See a Shakespeare play I know nothing about before going into the theatre. All's Well That Ends Well
was the only "Problem Play" not covered on my University English course, and I've not seen a production before. Marianne Elliott's production at the Olivier is so assured it makes you wonder why it's not put on more often. Yes, there's some tricky morality to deal with but there's also some great comedy along the way. It's interesting that here we have a central romantic couple, neither of whom we can particularly sympathise with. Bertram (George Rainsford) may act pretty appallingly, but Helena (Michelle Terry,) although more immediately likeable, still spends the whole play trying to entrap a man who clearly doesn't love her into marriage.
Elliott plays up the fairytale elements of the plot, but it's a dark fairytale - Rae Smith's set is straight out of a Tim Burton movie, aided by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll's cartoonish projections which tend to include a lot of spiders, owls and wolves. It's really hard to pick a standout performance because they're all so good, although I have to mention Claire Higgins (Being Human
fans will remember her as Josie, Mitchell's ex-girlfriend from the 1960s who appeared in the last two episodes)who makes the Countess warm and flirtatious. The sub-plot featuring Parolles (Conleth Hill) reminded me of the similar fake attack on Falstaff, and is well done here.
On the traditional shallow note, after two shows where George Rainsford has seemed on the verge of getting his shirt off but didn't, he finally does here and it was worth the wait. (vanessaw
, like me, approved of the amount of time the male cast spend wearing jackets with no shirts underneath; although she was about as taken with the shoes, and would probably have tried to nick Helena's Cinderella-ish slippers at the interval if she thought she could get away with it.) The assorted lords and soldiers aren't hard on the eyes either - I particularly noticed Jolyon Coy. (I couldn't help noting where both Rainsford and Coy studied, and how often I seem to fancy people who went to that particular drama school. I think it's time someone on my flist confessed: The admissions process there is just a beauty contest, isn't it?)
Anyway, back to the production itself and it's hard for me to fault: Lots of fun, but dark where it needs to be. All's Well That Ends Well
by William Shakespeare is booking until the 30th of September at the National Theatre's Olivier.