All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).
Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.
Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.
More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.
The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.
None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.
Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.