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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre


  Colin Hurley and Janie Dee/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

There are several “problem” plays in the Shakespearean canon, which usually translates into “difficult” or “rarely seen.” But whereas Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida have found wide acceptance as perhaps the most directly “modern” Shakespeare plays in their tone and content, All’s Well lingers in the recess of public favour.

And yet, every time I see it, not least in this lucid, cunningly edited and utterly enjoyable revival by John Dove at the Globe – the first time the play has been presented here – I marvel at its suppleness of thought, cleverness of plotting and beauty of expression.

The action moves between bedroom, court and battlefield, as the determined orphan Helena (Ellie Piercy) pursues the reluctant, priggish young husband, Bertram (Sam Crane), who has been assigned to her in gratitude by the King of France (Sam Cox) for curing him of his fistula; Helena is allowed to choose her own husband.

How promising does that sound? But the play resonates in the arguments surrounding the rights and wrongs of nature and nurture, includes some spirited clown scenes at the Italian wars, and a “bed trick” with which Helena snares Bertram while disguised as a pilgrim, and substituted between the sheets by an old madam’s daughter whom Bertram lusts after. She also manages to rescue the ring that he said he would not part withal, and appear pregnant in the last scene.

Dove and designer Michael Taylor keep things pure and simple; well, simple, anyway. The great difficulty is making of Bertram someone you don’t want to dislike the moment he opens his mouth. But Crane brilliantly suggests that Bertram develops one great big sulk the minute he is (in his view, unfairly) paired off with Helena and, for the first time in my experience, fulfils the argument on his behalf by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that he is the victim of a tyrannical act.

His sulk and cavalier departure to the wars displeases his mother, though, the Countess of Rossillion, one of the wisest old birds in the Bard, who sides with Helena’s campaign against her own son, but operates, too, as a moral compass and agony aunt. The role is usually taken by a grand dame twinkling with gravitas in her declining years – Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench (in the last RSC production, which played in the West End in 2004).

But Janie Dee does something completely different. She plays a woman barely touching 40 who refuses to take her own wisdom for granted and discovers her arguments by confronting each new problem with a frank immediacy. It is a genuinely fresh and funny performance.

The absolute flavour of this play is embodied by the delightful Dee and expressed in that beautiful short speech of the First Lord (Peter Hamilton Dyer): “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.”

In other words, we learn to live and let live, hopefully. The operations at the court and on the battlefield are the subject of wry and satirical commentary from two sources: the old clown of the Countess, Lavatch, whom Colin Hurley manages to make funny by playing him very droll and deadpan; and the colourful braggart Parolles (the name suggests he is “all talk”), definitively played by Guy Henry in that Judi Dench RSC version (directed by Gregory Doran) but now renovated with new bumptiousness and absurdity by James Garnon. A lovely evening.


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