All's Well That Ends Well, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

There is nothing like a dame
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The Independent Culture

It's nearly 25 years since Judi Dench last performed for the RSC in Stratford, and she has never before acted in the Swan Theatre. So her appearance as the Countess Rossillion in Greg Doran's captivating production of the rarely revived All's Well That Ends Well is an occasion - and one to which she rises with customary magnificence. It's a part that needs the humane authority of a great actress, for this is a difficult play in which genres jar against each other and various expectations are rudely reversed.

In comedy, forward-looking youth is supposed to be socially open-minded and freer in spirit than the older generation, but here it's the wrinkly brigade - represented by the Countess and the King - whose attitudes prove to be more liberal and supple than those of their juniors. The unreconstructed class-bound snob is the Countess's callow son, Bertram, who is responsible for another inversion of the norm. Instead of boy pursues girl, it's a case here of boy runs away from girl.

The girl in question is the Countess's ward, Helena, the daughter of a deceased doctor and too low socially for Bertram's consideration. When Helena wins his hand in marriage as a royal reward for her wondrous curing of the sick king, our attitude to Bertram's snooty abandonment of this new still-virgin bride and his bunking for the foreign wars is mixed. Disgust at the shocking callousness of his desertion is qualified by the nagging question: what bridegroom would want to come gift-wrapped as a prize from a king?

There's an elegiac quality to the Rossillion estate summoned up here by Stephen Brimson Lewis's spare, effective design of wintry trees etched on sheets of silvery, scoured glass. Here Dench's widowed Countess presides with a wry, good-natured tolerance. For example, though the resident clown Lavache (played by Mark Lambert as a rumbustious Irish loon) would drive a saint to assault and battery with his unfunny punning, she is prepared to humour him and enter into a kind of double act of raillery as he performs his doubtless infrequent ablutions. This Countess combines a piercing nostalgia for her own younger days with a capacity for generous identification with the heartache and emotional turmoil of her juniors. Shrewdly surmising that Helena harbours a passion for her son, she wrests a confession from the girl by a witty but warm questioning that quibbles on the awkward idea that she is a mother to her ward and, by implication, that Bertram is her unmarriageable brother.

Claudie Blakley's Helena - winning because of her unconventional attractiveness - brings out, with some wonderfully charged pauses, the droll as well as the painful side of the heroine's discomfort. Once the admission is made, the Countess becomes her champion.

Though at times a mite over-projected for such an intimate space, the production has the measure of the play's disarmingly diverse tones - it's able to encompass, in swift succession, a haunting sense of the miraculous in Helena's ministrations to the king; a delightfully larky spirit for the dance in which she chooses her man by a process of rigged elimination; and then a terrible atmosphere of public humiliation when the excellent Jamie Glover's emotionally stunted Bertram rejects her as an affront to his aristocratic honour.

All's Well is at times like a proto-Ibsenite social drama and at others like a folk-tale. Doran rightly refuses to smooth away the resulting incongruities, allowing the piece to be a problem play in which realism and romance can never be fully reconciled. There's an admirable flow to the staging, too, which emphasises how the bed trick that ensnares Bertram has some uncomfortable similarities to the concurrent ruse that exposes the treacherous cowardice of his false friend Parolles, played as sort of scabrous, unhouse-trained fop by the very funny Guy Henry. Certainly we are left here with a final stage picture - the reunited hero and heroine still isolated in their separate pools of light - that makes you feel that a happy ending is indefinitely postponed.

To 7 February (0870 609 1110)