All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

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The Independent Culture

Shakespeare's Globe is on a high. It kicked off this season with a star performance (from Joshua McGuire) in a wonderfully clear and accessible touring version of Hamlet (directed by Dominic Dromgoole). Now it inaugurates its main stage repertoire with a production of All's Well That Ends Well that one would say takes the roof off the theatre, had the theatre a roof.

The play is one of the trickiest to pull off in the canon. It's a knotty problem play that deliberately fails to achieve the right to its own "happy" ending; it has strong elements of Ben Jonson (in the satiric portrayal of the braggart coward Parolles); and it fields flashing intimations of the late Romances (such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest) in the aura of resurrection and renewal that it ultimately intimates as it ushers itself to it bittersweet conclusion.

The wonder of John Dove's production is that it does handsome justice to all of these features, while also delivering the play with a gusto that leaves the audience reeling with happiness by the end. With so much to praise, it is hard to prioritise, but here goes. The central, tremendously problematic relationship between Bertram, the spoilt heir and anti-hero, and Helena, the adopted "sister" and young woman who painfully adores him, is brilliantly well handled. Most productions (of this very rarely staged piece) present a Bertram who is noxious in his selfishness. Not here. Sam Crane gives us a hero who is sunk in a self-hating depression and who, although he knows that Helena could be the answer to his prayers, can't overcome the rooted self-dislike that would allow him to woo her.

Ellie Piercy delivers a thrilling performance as Helena: mettlesome, very modern (not for nothing did George Bernard Shaw call this heroine the New Woman), wearied-looking through thoughtfulness and yet full of the ardent flash of rallying wit and raillery. The Rosalind of As You Like It would be proud to be chums with her.

Janie Dee is a total delight as the Countess and mother of Bertram. For an object lesson in superb acting, observe the way she reads aloud a dismaying letter from her son – merriment disintegrating by expertly modulated degrees as the full horror of what he has done dawns. Terrific work, too, from James Garnon as Parolles and Colin Hurley as Lavatch.

In rep to 21 August (020 7401 9919)