Theatre All's Well That Ends Well Royal Exchange, Manchester

"All in black" is Shakespeare's opening stage direction for All's Well and Matthew Lloyd takes the cue to give us an undistracted vision of this famously "dark" comedy. It is a sobriety, however, that unfolds an unusual richness of interpretation and much thoughtful acting.

The play's puzzle resides in the difficulty of reconciling its two quite different visions of the world. On the one hand, Helena loves Bertram in an absolute, nearly transcendent way and is steadfast throughout. Yet this haughty but dull lad is part of the alternative vision, that of a cynical and self-seeking world where, as both Bertram and his caricature, the loquacious braggart Parolles, demonstrate, few are true to their word. Lloyd and his designer Ashley Martin-Davis realise this by a setting that has a Noel Coward-ish patina, glassware, punctilious service and immaculate stiff suitings upon a floor of fissured marble.

Lloyd's interpretative key, which both explains Helena and Bertram's torment and might release enough forgiveness to sustain the happy ending, is sexuality. A huge vase of lilies stands centre stage at the outset, an emblem of Helena's purity. But in the debate on virginity between her and Parolles, it is clear that she is really of his opinion that it is "too cold a companion". Trevyn McDowell conveys Helena's erotic charge luminously. No wonder Alastair Galbraith's fine Parolles flicks his cigarette into the lilies.

The trouble is Bertram (David Bark-Jones) can't cope with it. He can barely take his eyes off her; yet, when presented to him by the dominatingly phallic figure of James Smith's stentorian monarch, she overwhelms his unready manhood. His objection to her low birth is palpably an excuse and, tellingly, he escapes to the wars.

The ostensible line of the play's fairy-tale must be that, by becoming a successful soldier, Bertram grows up and so becomes worthy of Helena. But Shakespeare is sceptical enough to undermine his own plot as he shows Bertram becoming merely better accoutred, trading his virginity for cynical prowess in bedding, as he thinks, Diana. Yet, as the author of this bed- plot, Helena herself partakes of the world of deceit and casuistry.

All this makes us see just how ironic Shakespeare's title is. Darker yet, perhaps Bertram does not deserve Helena in either sense of the word: hers is a triumph not of love but of energy. For the final scene, roses have replaced the lilies, though for how far along the way we are left to guess by a fine production of this riddling play.

n To 19 Oct. Booking: 0161-833 9833

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