Theatre review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National Theatre, London

All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

Michelle Terry, Oliver Ford Davies, George Rainsford. Photo by Simon Annand
Helena is one of Shakespeare’s feistiest and most bloody-minded of heroines, going out of her way to bag the man of her dreams. But the dark note running through All’s Well That Ends Well comes out of the fairytale conundrum of what happens if the girl marries the prince and, well, he’s just not that into her. In fact, he’s so not into her that he runs off to war and tries to pull a barmaid.

Marianne Elliott’s bewitching production at the National takes a while to get going as the characters and the intricate plot are established but then it flies. Michelle Terry is a shrewd and cunning Helena with a vulnerability underlying her resourcefulness. You do wonder why she would be attracted to the immature Bertram, who is first seen playing childish war games with his sword but, played by George Rainsford, he has a youthful arrogance that may well make a young girl’s heart swoon.

The older generation is represented by Clare Higgins as his long-suffering mother and Oliver Ford Davies as a skittish King of France, but Conleth Hill stands out as the cowardly Parolles, a puffed-up Falstaffian performance enhanced by inspired comic touches.

Shakespeare’s toying with fairytale conventions is beautifully amplified by Rae Smith’s set design of lofty turrets, castle ramparts, silhouetted winking owls and trees like bony fingers, recalling the worlds of Tim Burton and Jan Pieńkowski. The play may have a fairytale ending but nobody is left thinking that they live happily ever after.

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