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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Claire Higgins/Ph: Simon Annand

Director Marianne Elliott has opted for a Gothic fairy tale aesthetic for the National's first ever production of All's Well That Ends Well.

The action takes place beneath an evil  sky populated by flapping crows and punctuated by silhouetted towers of the kind from which Rapunzel once let down her hair.

Claire Higgins's Countess Rosillon has a touch of Cruella about her and Oliver Ford Davis's  monarch is your classic fairy tale King complete with wispy beard and pointy crown, flowing robes and a spine as crooked as his walking stick.

It's a magical world that allows for an easier than usual suspension of disbelief for Shakespeare's weird romance.

The plot unfolds in earnest when with the blessing of her adoptive mother the countess, Helena engineers her marriage to the countess's son Bertram as a reward for curing the ailing king.

The reluctant fiancé views the lowly Helena, who he has known since childhood as an unworthy bride for a count such as he. He makes a break for Florence, she follows, tricks him into consummating their marriage and after a big row about the provenance of rings Bertram is exposed as a liar, Helena is revealed as his now pregnant saviour and a tale of class distinctions, obsession and snobbery is resolved in a balm of reconciliation.

Except that Elliott - previous credits include War Horse one of the National's few West End transfers of recent times - would rather send us away with our marrow chilled than with a spring in our step. For as Helena and Bertram finally hold hands in joyful union, the celebrations around them slows and they turn, faces contorted in fearful realization  at the mismatch.

So this is a play about forced marriage too, albeit forced by the bride. There must have been a good deal of discussion in rehearsal about whether for this final flourish that so subverts the play's title Michelle Terry's  grounded yet obsessed Helena should reveal her triumph while holding hands with George Rainford's  defeated Bertram.

But fairy tale turns to gothic horror, was the preferred option. And in between there is much made of the comedic Henry IV subplot  injected by Shakespeare into his late play. It concerns the absurdly dressed Parolle, a coward who nurtures his reputation as a brave soldier until this Falstaff-like buffoon - quite beautifully exploited by a strutting Conleth Hill l whose warrior garb is festooned in garters and ribbons - is fooled by his compatriots into revealing his cowardly core.

In his most significant role yet, the young Rainsford's Bertram is a golden boy in the grip of adolescent selfishness. And fresh from her turn in England People Very Nice, Michelle Terry's Helena somehow reveals a saner side to obsession. But other than the moments of introspection in which Higgins's fierce Countess reveals a aching empathy for her adopted daughter, or when Hill's humiliated Parolles rallies with self-knowledge - "Simply the thing I am shall make me live" - the co-star of this production is Rae Smith's  spooky design. Style and substance in near-perfect harmony.


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