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RSC Stratford review: All's Well That Ends Well


All’s Well That Ends Well, RSC Stratford, to October 8.

Review by Jane Barker and Wynne Lang

Considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, All’s Well has characters that are difficult to like.

It tells the story of Helena, a poor physician’s daughter, who is in love with Bertram, Count of Rossillion. But he views her as a mere annoyance and she is devastated when he leaves to serve at the French court. But determined Helena concocts a plot to force him to marry her.

The plan works, technically, but an unhappy Bertram runs away to fight in the Florentine war to escape his new wife and becomes infatuated with Diana. Helen devises an even more complicated plan to get him back.

All’s Well ends with Bertram professing his love for Helen, but as the stage is plunged into darkness, with the future a gaping hole, the audience is left to wonder whether all really has ended well.

The play is billed as a comedy, and it is part slapstick and part pantomime, but there are problems bringing it to life for a modern audience. You have the challenge of interpreting the actions of the two main protagonists, Helena (Rosie Sheehy) and Bertram (Benjamin Westerby). Helena is unopposed to using others in her advances towards Bertram and forces him into a marriage he clearly does not want; Bertram is an arrogant rich boy with little concern for how others are affected by his actions.

Both make decisions that today would be seen as socially unacceptable - from morally ambiguous to downright deplorable.

But Westerby and Sheehy bring their complex characters to life, although Helena should perhaps appear more gleeful in her triumph. Claire Benedict is great as the Countess of Rossillion, Bertram’s mother, who spends most of her time protective of Helena and annoyed with her son.

Jamie Wilkes is hilarious as Bertram’s less-than-moral companion and confidante Parolles, finding himself the deserving victim of yet another trick. The comic timing of Wilkes and Will Edgerton as Lavache the entertainer, is excellent and gives the play much-needed energy. The audience loved them.

It is a brave production by Blanche McIntyre which questions the role social media plays in our lives, although the theme could have been carried through more consistently: The traditional use of letters being exchanged and read aloud on stage is an uncomfortable fit with the highlighted use of mobile phones and game consoles.

For tickets go to: rsc.org.uk

Picture: Ikin Yum © RSC