THEATRE All's Well That Ends Well

An engrossingly intelligent production of an old favourite. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
At the end of As You Like It, the cynical Jacques speculates confidently about the married lives that lie in store for the various couples on stage, even waspishly informing Touchstone and sluttish Audrey that their "loving voyage/ Is but for two months victuall'd". You can't help wondering how he would rate the more complexly dubious prospects of Bertram and Helena at the awkward conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well. Casting doubt over the proverbial wisdom of its title, the play shows how a resourceful, determined heroine manages to win back the immature, callous young nobleman who had deserted her on their wedding night. She can only achieve this, however, by dint of a crafty bed trick that humiliates her and throws an even worse light on her spouse's sordid defects of character. Just how joyful, then, is the play's "happy" ending?

Patrick Sandford's engrossingly intelligent production is alert to all the caveats that cluster round this particular comic resolution, but it also suggests grounds for a tentative hopefulness. Since it reprieves him from the charge of having murdered her, Paul Barnhill's callow, wriggling Bertram is visibly winded with relief at the last-minute reappearance of his now- pregnant wife, and can hardly restrain his face from breaking into unseemly smiles. More promising, though, is the gauchely affectionate way he pats Helena's bump and puts his ear to it with an experimental fatherly pride. Maybe paternity, however bizarrely arrived at, will encourage him to do some belated growing up.

With large soulful eyes and an air of pained intensity, Alexandra Mathie's Helena communicates perfectly the virtuous ardour and obsessive love of this single-minded heroine, while not disguising a due distress at the degrading procedures to which she must resort to achieve her objective. Around her, there's a fine cast, with Zena Walker's silvery, tolerantly wise old Countess visibly mortified and aged by her son's derelictions, and Granville Saxton bringing a helpful touch of Windsor Davis in It Ain't Half Hot Mum to his vivid portrayal of the braggart Parolles as a blustering military phoney.

The production could afford to impart a stronger sense of Bertram's emotional dependence on this character, whose exposure as an eagerly co-operative traitor, in the very well-played mock-ambush scene, removes a major obstacle to Bertram's appreciation of Helena's preferable qualities. What the staging does help you see, though, is the queasy equivalence between the way his fellow soldiers trick Parolles into a self-incriminating trap, and the deceitful stratagem by which Helena lures Bertram back into her arms.

Sandford's production actually offers an upstage glimpse of the heroine waiting as an undercover substitute in Diana's bed, while downstage the ensnared Parolles dangles over the proceedings in a net. The visual juxtaposition invites you to draw a parallel, and brings into sharp relief the question of ends and means that, throughout, unsettles this thought-provoking problem comedy.

Nuffield Theatre, Southampton to 2 Dec. Booking 01703 671771

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