ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 7th August, 2022
Everyone knows the title of Shakespeare’s late comedy (characters even say it as part of their dialogue) but fewer people are familiar with the story it tells. The play isn’t performed as often as Much Ado, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, so every new production has a head start in delivering something fresh.
Basically, young Helena takes a fancy to Bertram, who rejects her. She does a favour for the King of France (as you do) and he grants her a wish. Her wish is to marry Bertram. Bertram runs away to war because that is preferable to an unwanted marriage, apparently. Helena goes after him, finds the girl he’s got his eye on and colludes with her to swap places so that Bertram will have sex with Helena after all, unwittingly and without consent.
In some respects, Helena can be regarded as something of a feminist figure, a woman who knows what she wants and goes all out to get it. Trouble is, she behaves like a man to do this. Since comedy was invented, male characters have done what Helena does, the exception being that the female object of pursuit enjoys the chase, making only token protestations. Imagine Sid James going after Barbara Windsor and you get my point. But when the tables are turned, and it’s a woman taking the lead, it’s uncomfortable somehow.
At this performance, the role of Helena is played by Jessica Layde, and she does a good job, although in later scenes, when Helena is pretending to be a pilgrim, more could be made of the character’s duplicity. Deception is a big theme of the piece, after all. Benjamin Westerby is pitch perfect as the cocky but emotionally immature Bertram, while Jamie Wilkes steals the show as the cowardly braggart Parolles. We like him instantly, as a stock character, an archetype that predates Shakespeare by centuries, but when he is mock-kidnapped and mock-tortured by his soldier buddies, and spills his guts, being even more careless with military secrets than Donald Trump, things change. The moment when Parolles strips himself to his underpants, rolling around the stage, divested of all pretence is, along with the very final few seconds, the most striking point of the production.
Funlola Olufunwa brings a confident and easy nobility to the elegant Countess, and I could watch Micah Balfour all night. Bruce Alexander as the King of France and Simon Coates as LaFew show how it should be done, demonstrating vocal strength and mastery of the text that is not quite there with some of the less experienced members of the cast.
Director Blanche McIntyre is keen to point out that her production is set in the here and now. Projections flash up the date, along with news reports, social media posts (mostly illegible) and selfies; I’m not sure they add much to proceedings other than crying out ‘Look! How relevant we are!’, when really what is interesting and contemporary about the piece is the reversal of gender behaviour, with Helena as a predatory figure. In the light of the #MeToo movement, there is much to explore here.
All’s Well is a play of moments rather than a cohesive whole. This production delivers the highlights superbly but doesn’t really get to grips with the lesser parts.
☆ ☆ ☆