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All’s Well That Ends Well review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘blisteringly good’

Nigel Cooke and Ellora Torchia in All's Well That Ends Well at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Nigel Cooke and Ellora Torchia in All's Well That Ends Well at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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How do you tackle a Shakespeare play that people consider a problem? One answer, at least for the Globe’s outgoing artistic director Emma Rice, it seems, is to bring in director Caroline Byrne.

All’s Well That Ends Well is part of Rice’s final winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Byrne’s 2016 production of Taming of the Shrew in the main space reframed Shakespeare’s most misogynistic work into a fierce cry of despair at the treatment of women.

Similarly, here, Byrne and dramaturg Annie Siddons have opened up the verse, skilfully casting it in new shades to cut a line of female solidarity through the toxic masculinity of its story. Lines not dulled by the same familiarity as much of Shakespeare sing a complex tune. The direction is full of small, telling moments.

From the first scene, when Helena rejects the role of the dutifully grieving daughter, her character’s pursuit of Bertram is a challenge to a male-dominated French court. Ellora Torchia imbues her with indefatigable intelligence.

Martina Laird and Ellora Torchia in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo: Marc Brenner
Martina Laird and Ellora Torchia in All’s Well That Ends Well. Photo: Marc Brenner

Making his Globe debut, Will Merrick’s Bertram isn’t a romanticised rogue. He’s a gangly, resentful boy, going to war to escape his daddy’s shadow and kicking out at everyone. His cruelty is petty and vicious.

There’s fairy tale here, but Byrne roots it in reality. The humour lands because the world has a twinkling shrug of familiarity beyond the black gleam of designer Colin Richmond’s candlelit stage. Epitomised by Imogen Doel’s mercilessly well observed Paroles, an anxiety-driven peacock, it’s run (and ruined) by a bunch of dicks.

Martina Laird: ‘Women are used to compromising, but the cost is becoming too great’

This is a production in which women use what they have to support each other, from Bertram’s mother, the countess, to the widow who, along with her daughter, agrees to help Helena fulfil Bertram’s impossible marriage conditions. Martina Laird plays both roles with a tough, sad insight. They mirror each other.

The imagery is stark, even when it tips over into outright bluntness after the interval. The ‘bed trick’ – when Helena changes places with the woman Bertram thinks he’s having sex with – happens via a giant slit.

Theo Vidgen’s score provides an aptly jumpy backdrop for what Hannah Ringham’s droll, gurn-free Clown calls ‘these irregular times’ as she knowingly eyeballs us. The real world spills onto the stage, as Helena dresses in a corset as if for battle.

The conciliatory tone of the ending, then, is a slightly disappointing conclusion to the strident energy of the start, and it’s impossible, really, to make a case for why Helena is attracted to Bertram in the first place.

But there’s something resonant about the hard-won sense of beginning that ends Byrne’s blisteringly good production about sisterhood. The play’s title now feels tentative. All’s Well That Ends Well? Only time will tell. It’s a pointed question for today.

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Caroline Byrne transforms Shakespeare’s problem play into a powerful rallying cry for women