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

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'