Theatre / All's Well That Ends Well Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London

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The Independent Culture
In the theatre, as in life, there are two ways of approaching a problem: either you can try to solve it, or you can plough merrily on and hope it will go away. Helena Kaut-Howson favours the second approach, if her production of All's Well That Ends Well is anything to go by; and on this showing, there is something to be said for it.

All's Well is usually labelled a "problem comedy", along with Measure for Measure - the problem here usually being located in the mismatch between the sophisticated, realistically imagined characters and the simplistic and far-fetched plot, with its echoes of folk-story: the beautiful and virtuous (but low-born) Helena cures the King of France of a wasting disease. As her reward, she demands the hand of Bertram, Count of Roussillon, whose mother has brought her up. Rather than marry her, Bertram runs off to the wars; Helena follows (having spread word of her own death) and manages to trick Bertram into bedding her under the cover of darkness when he thinks he's with somebody else. Back home in France, he admits that he did love his wife, presumed dead; she turns up, pregnant, and they are united.

Kaut-Howson's staging doesn't resolve the implausibilities, but for at least two-thirds of the evening it jollies the action along with enough verve and intelligence for you not to worry too much about them. It helps that she has a fine cast - particularly Isabel Pollen, making her professional debut, who gives Helena exactly the right qualities of youthfulness and maturity.

There is, as so often at Regent's Park, a gimmicky edge to the production which it could do without. There's no reason, for instance, why the Widow Capilet, Helena's protector and helper in Florence, should be a Mrs Mopp and her daughter a white-trash slut, except that it provides an opportunity for a few cheap laughs (an opportunity that the excellent Frances Cuka makes the most of). The onstage bathtub may originally have been designed with some thought of introducing images of cleansing and rebirth, which would be appropriate enough; but it ends up being an excuse for some comedy splashing.

But there are also a couple of moments of sheer, compelling strangeness - the clown Lavatch's entrance as Madam Butterfly is one of these - and some shrewd interpretive flourishes. At court, for instance, while most characters are dressed in sober black, Helena and the Flashmanesque braggart Parolles (Nigel Planer) are linked by their punk/ hippyish traveller costumes. You realise how far these two talkie, cerebral characters are divorced from the society around them; the play sees Helena learning to marry thought to action, while Parolles' failure to act leads to his humiliation in the main sub-plot. It's a worthwhile point, but a shame that the costumes are so revolting.

Not an entirely unproblematic production, then; but until the end, when Bertram's sudden conversion is unconvincingly glossed over, the problems are entirely superficial. It may not end well, but it's mostly well anyway.

To 6 Sep. (0171-486 2431)

Robert Hanks

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