THEATRE All's Well That Ends Well Oxford Playhouse and touring

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The Independent Culture
Irina Brook's multi-cultural production of All's Well That Ends Well is wonderfully fresh and captivating. There have been complaints that her chosen format makes a difficult play even more complicated. Proceedings begin in a bustling African marketplace full of street-traders crying up their wares, ethnic drummers and the odd European tourist. A wicker basket is unpacked, costumes are wafted around and one man pops a tambourine on his head and instantly becomes the King of France. In this spontaneous, let's-do-the-show-right-here manner, the group begins to act out the story of Shakespeare's play. When not performing, the actors sit around the side watching, swigging from waterbottles and heightening certain episodes with a percussive accompaniment.

Does adding a framing locale to an already geographically restless play cause confusion? Not, I can only report, to my 10-year-old guest, who had no problem cottoning on to the production's sometimes witty, sometimes haunting shorthand, and who was engrossed and enchanted by the piece. Indeed, if I have an objection, it is that the strong appeal of this staging is more than a touch too childlike in its uncynical, exotic simplicity.

There is wonder, to be sure, in the material Shakespeare adapted in this story of Helena, a poor but resolute physician's daughter who claims the hand of her benefactor's snobbish son, as a reward for curing the king, pursues this reluctant prize to the Italian wars and only succeeds in holding him to account as a husband by dint of a bed trick. Intimations of the miraculous sit side by side in Shakespeare's play with a sophisticated scepticism about slotting psychologically complex people into neat happy endings. He adds the idea of a mock-death and resurrection for the heroine, but since this device gives the hero time and scope to demonstrate even more clearly his worthlessness as a catch, the joy at the conclusion can't be unqualified.

Doubt, however, casts a very short shadow over Brook's account of the play. Beautifully played by Rachel Pickup, Helena is at once a sensitive human being and an inspiring mythic force for good. Delicate other-worldly chimes sound at the mention of her powers. Staged in silhouette behind a screen, her cure of the king is presented as a spirit-banishing, arm- waving dance. The sordid side of the bed trick evaporates here in a lovely, interpolated, silent scene where, veiled as Diana, Helena leads her unwitting husband into this sexual tryst as if it were some initiation into the nobler mysteries rather than a one-night stand on false pretences. Emile Marwa's Bertram, more naive boy than peevish cad, looks as though he may well ripen under Helena's rays.

The last time OSC mounted a multi-cultural Shakespeare, with Alexandru Darie's 1992 Much Ado, it was an unholy hodge-podge: if, to the strains of a sitar, an Eskimo had wandered on shaking a shillelagh, you would not have been surprised. Here, by contrast, the wildly varying styles tend to capture and intensify the spirit of their particular strand - from the refreshing, earthy directness of the African Widow and Diana (Anni Domingo, Clara Onyemere) to Michael Greco's strutting, would-be Latin lover of a Parolles, who gabbles his treacheries at hilarious top speed. Well worth catching on its national tour, this is a production that winningly establishes its own kind of imaginative integrity. Oxford Playhouse to Sat (booking: 01865 798600), then touring nationally to 6 December Paul Taylor