All's Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, review: Eye-opening and vividly alive

Caroline Byrne's compelling interpretation of one of the trickiest plays in the Shakespeare canon is a twisted treat

Paul Taylor
Thursday 18 January 2018 12:33 GMT
Nigel Cooke as the King of France and Ellora Torchia as Helena
Nigel Cooke as the King of France and Ellora Torchia as Helena

The publicity proclaims that director Caroline Byrne is bringing “this dark, twisted and dangerous interpretation of All's Well That Ends Well to the candle-lit intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”. The billing is no exaggeration. In the close, flickering murk of the Globe's indoor theatre, her production re-imagines the play – one of the trickiest in the Shakespeare canon – in a way that boldly underscores its jarring dissonances. There are flashing intimations in this piece of the late Romances such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest in the pattern of resurrection and renewal, but these are set against the Measure for Measure-like difficulties whereby the play seems to question its right to a “happy” ending. Byrne's production is vividly alive to all the tensions and discrepancies and also to where some of these might be resolved. The result is compelling; no one could accuse the show of lacking the courage of its convictions.

The heroine, Helena, was hailed as a prototype of the New Woman by George Bernard Shaw – an intelligent, resourceful female saddled with a man whose selfish conventionality is in mean contrast to her own noble nature. Ellora Torchia's shrewd, ardent performance impressively brings out the pain of being a middle-class orphan besotted by the arrant young snob who's now the head of your adopted family. But this production wants to emphasise that Helena is also a magical figure from folklore – a heroine whose family tradition of healing remedies earn her the right to a husband of her choice when she cures the king of his illness. Disturbing if construed realistically, her risky determination to win the heart of the steadfastly undeserving Bertram obeys the rules of a less complicated genre.

We see her shadowy, intimate therapy on the King, inverting her hand-held candelabra and dousing it with the effect of an electric shock in the bathwater from which he emerges naked and rejuvenated. She herself is given a restorative soak here after thee pilgrimage that has seen her dangle aloft like an exhausted custodial spirit over the proceedings. The intercutting between the “bed-trick” and the ambush of the flashy cowardly, Parolles (here played by Imogen Doel with an insinuating Irish brogue) ensures we recognise that Bertram, too, could perhaps ask: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” The ending here is much less conditional then in the original. When he's confronted with his supposedly dead wife, she's not just pregnant but carrying their baby and this sight softens Will Merrick's fine Bertram who tenderly takes it in his arms, having only moments before given a frantic, unlovely display of self-exculpating calumny. If the text has been rearranged here, it's been augmented earlier to allow Helena to enlarge on the paradoxical beneficence of her strategy towards a man who has done nothing but wound her: “I'm Hydra,” she says to him in her mind's eye, “every time you hurt me I grow”.

The atmosphere veers between the louche and the numinous and the performances are all finely tuned – Paige Carter brings a witty sense of moral disdain to the riddling Diana while the show's sharp nose for correspondences is shown in the excellent doubling by the husky-voiced Martina Laird of the diversely maternal Countess of Rossillion and the Widow. You look at All's Well... with new eyes. A striking piece of work.

Until 3 March (

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