Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: John Dove
Reviewer: Katherine Kirwin
All’s Well That Ends Well is one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays and this was its first production at the Globe. Gordon McCullen, the Shakespeare lecturer at King’s College London, calls it an “unfortunate comedy” which is purposefully uncomfortable for the audience to watch. The plot is essentially a story of class and social mobility (probably why it was Jane Austen’s favourite Shakespeare play) with the poor Helena falling in love with Bertram, the son of her guardian the Countess of Rousillon. When Helena uses her medicine skills to cure the King of France of his sickness, she claims Bertram as her reward. However, disgusted by his enforced marriage, Bertram flees Helena leaving two obstructive conditions to their marriage – conditions which he is sure will never be met.
Director John Dove’s decision to eke out every bit of comedy within the play makes it a very comfortable watch for the audience. This production took a lighter tone overall and also used the comedic subplots to great effect in order to create an overall feeling of watching a Shakespearian comedy rather than a “problem play”. The staging was wonderfully simple, allowing the characters and dexterity of the language to take over the stage and create the surroundings, without the need for any elaborate set.
The problem play was cleverly avoided by placing the emphasis upon the character of Bertram as much as on Helena. Sam Crane’s Bertram was quietly engaging and brought out the vulnerable, immature aspect of the character rather than the so-easily-accessible interpretation of him as an arrogant cad. Instead Sam Crane’s nobleman comes across more as inexperienced in the affairs of the heart, impulsive and governed by lust with Diana. But there is a lovely motif in the production of him clutching a handkerchief belonging to Helena (skilfully played by Ellie Piercy) which implies that she is never far from his thoughts even when he is supposedly philandering. This convention made the ending feel genuinely like a happy reunion between a well-matched couple, who have found love together via the difficult journey they have both taken since marriage.
This was a truly ensemble piece and I could not find a weak link within the cast. However special mention must go to the performance of Parolles by James Garnon whose ease with the language and lightness of tone commanded the stage and our attention from the moment he sets foot on the wooden boards. Also Janie Dee’s Countess of Roussillon had great ease with the language and a wonderful comic timing in order to find nuance and laughter in lines you would never have expected – I looked forward to her rare appearances on the stage.
This is a production which should be congratulated on all levels, for it’s simple staging, dexterity with the text, luxurious Jacobean costumes, wonderfully genuine performances in a difficult open-air space and creating an engaging, comedic production out of a problematic play. It’s only flaw is that it is a play of two halves and the second half does not flow with laughter as easily as the first, but that comes down to the material rather than any efforts at the Globe.