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All’s Well That Ends Well review at National Olivier London

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All’s Well, once classified as a “dark comedy”, is a play full of unanswered questions, not least why its heroine risks so much for so apparently unworthy a husband. Physician’s daughter Helena is clever, honest, forthright and, when required, a handy doctor substitute. The much loved servant of the Countess of Rossillion – a fervent Clare Higgins – she falls in love with her employer’s son, Bertram. He is a callow, untrustworthy snob and, in Marianne Elliott’s exuberant production, a pretty blond boy who likes playing war games.

Elliott attacks the problem by boldly espousing the play’s fairytale elements. In Rae Smith’s witty design, France is a Grimm land in mourning where robes are dusky, rings are glittery carbuncles and silhouettes, which might have come from an edition of Perrault, punctuate the story. Helena – Michelle Terry, giving a powerful, heartfelt performance – cures the ailing king and, as reward, may choose her husband. George Rainsford’s Bertram will accept low-born Helena only if she procures his ancestral ring and becomes pregnant by him – difficult because he won’t share her bed and is off to war in Italy. Helena follows in secret.

The Elliott/Smith Florence, paint-box bright and circa 1960, is an altogether different world, where the time-honoured bed-trick solves Helena’s conundrum. Sexy cat costumes for the swapping women here bring us perilously close to pantomime in an otherwise subtle reading.

In the sub-plot, a bulky Conleth Hill underplays Parolles’ swaggering but his comeuppance at the hands of the upper-class bullies, including Bertram, neatly reveals their own venality.

The newlyweds’ equivocal expressions in the final seconds add a necessary ironic touch to an immensely enjoyable evening.

Production Information

National, Olivier, London, May 28-July 11

William Shakespeare
Marianne Elliott
National Theatre
Cast includes Michelle Terry, Clare Higgins, George Rainsford, Conleth Hill, Hasina Haque, Oliver Ford Davies
Running time

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