REVIEW: Steve Sutherland gives a 21-gun salute to the RSC's brilliant new production of All's Well That Ends Well
Steve Sutherland gives a 21-gun salute to the RSC's brilliant new production of All's Well That Ends Well. The production marks the end of the current run-through of Shakespeare's canon, which started with Gregory Doran's production of Richard II in 2013.
“I don’t want to make them think. There’s plenty of people who can do that. I just want to deliver entertainment. I want them to go, ‘Oh, that was so good.’ That’s what I’m after.” Steve Martin, The Hollywood Reporter, 2022
There’s been something of a surfeit of productions lately which showcase Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to surf down through the ages and reveal our predicaments as disturbingly eternal. The RSC’s recent Richard III, for example, fair crackled with innuendo pertaining to our contemporary political plight with the protagonist more than a mite self-obsessed Bojo. So I must say it’s a blessed relief to encounter this production which is pretty much a million miles way from the intention to rub our noses in it. On the contrary, if ever there was a show deliberately designed to make us forget our many current woes, it’s this one. Much credit for this must go to director Blanche McIntyre who handles all the iniquities of what is considered a ‘difficult’ play with a sure and steady hand. The pace is nicely brisk and she's never fazed by the play’s awkward moments when Shakespeare’s ropey plot approaches unbelievability. She actually appears to savour these challenges and boldly tackles them head-on, so even though we know our fragile sympathies with the characters are being sacrificed to the storyline, the action is always frisky and knowing enough to brazen us through.
This, of course, would scarcely be possible if it weren’t for the bonniest of casts. Claire Benedict’s Countess is as wise and regal as they come, while Bruce Alexander’s King Of France is a small miracle of stagecraft. He takes on what traditionally is a stolid role - old kings are mostly boring aren’t they, Lear aside? - and discovers within it all manner of sauciness and exasperation. Likewise Lafew, normally one of those tedious bearded ancient advisor types, who Simon Coates reinvents with a winning virility. The tongue-lashing he metes out to the rapscallion Parolles deservedly drew a spontaneous round of applause.
Ah, Parolles. Was there ever a part more enthusiastically embodied than the desperately delirious manner in which Jamie Wilkes goes about his task? He’s the rogue of the piece, of course, so he’s bound to upstage most but his ridiculously wavering mid-Atlantic accent, his wafting collection of hippy scarves, his collusion of nods and winks to the audience, and his ungainly descent by rope from a balcony - an act presumably invented by the canny director - are proper gleaming comedy gold. As is the bit when, faux kidnapped and shown up for the traitorous charlatan he every-fibre is, he disrobes to his M&S undies, crudely wrestling with the body suit we weren’t supposed to know he wears. Again, director, bravo!
This cast would already be rich enough, but Rosie Sheehy tops the lot as Helena. When we first come across her she’s a snivelling schoolgirl with a terrible crush on her stepbrother Bertram. By the interval she’s been a healer and a harridan, a pushy bride then a misused martyr, a survivor, a sinister schemer and finally a pregnant bride, though what exactly she’s got to blush about is beautifully left open to question. Sheehy is wonderful through all these wrenching twists and turns and although she’s undoubtedly the principal architect of all this lusty mayhem and has brought it all upon herself, we are still completely fond of her. As for Bertram, Benjamin Westerby has the hardest job. It’s said in the past that many a fine actor has tried all manner of tricks to elicit a soupçon of sympathy for a character that’s frankly unredeemable. Westerby doesn’t go for any of that stuff. He’s straight-up a handsome, selfish bad 'un and the production’s all the better for it.