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Review: The Globe – All’s Well That Ends Well (***)

The Globe’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well is available:
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Our Bottom Line:

This production gives ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ Attitude, capital ‘A’ and a sharper, more strategic sense of its own worth than its stage history suggests.

Our Review (***)

This is the Globe production from its 2011 season. See it now, four years on and in the run up to a UK general election, and you realise its timely appeal. It is newsworthy; as a ‘Problem Play’ should be. Here we have intrusive issues of failing health care, social immobility, arranged marriage, no, forced marriage, and even would-be Russians in the soldiers’ camp. You are right to think, with Yeats oddly, that the centre cannot hold and that any ‘ceremony of innocence’ is a joke. Rom-Com in splendid period costume or motley, wacky, satire? Arguably both come at you at once, rather like an awkward but enticing coalition.

Director John Dove brings it unapologetically onto a bare stage with pastoral backcloths. Actors glad-hand groundlings as the musicians start up. A love song with suggestive (French) lyrics is sweetly sung and then the first laughs come as a noble lady lightly slaps first her young ward, Helena, and then her son, Bertram. These two provide the love that will – eventually – end well enough. In the meantime a preposterous plot will out whose tone, frankly, is set by the droll enquiry made of Helena of whether or not she ‘is meditating on virginity?’ She is, if obliquely.

Bertram is more direct. ‘A dangerous and lascivious boy’ who is become (i) an improbable General of Horse and (ii) the seducer of gentlewomen, who ‘fleshes his will in the spoil of [their] honour’. It is the trick of this production that Sam Crane, playing Bertram, is actually in love with Helena but is too callow to act on it. So, we get what FT reviewer Sarah Hemming described as romance rubbing against realism. She saw sparks fly; I see crude folly being worn down.

Pay enjoyable attention to the clown, Lavatch. His is the slow melancholy strain and Colin Hurley hits it perfectly. The ways of love, of pomp and of court are skewered with knavish delight. He has the voice of Everyman in dubious and lax company.

Parolles: (James Garnon) Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Parolles: (James Garnon)
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

But dodgy and disreputable does provide fun and laughter and Bertram’s companion, Parolles (James Garnon), is the dupe in ‘snipt-taffeta’, whose soul is in his clothes and in his bragging mouth, but who nevertheless resolves to be true and good hereafter. It is the measure of Garnon’s wide-eyed performance that you can believe him.

Scholars of All’s Well – a choice few – expect to admire the role of the Countess of Roussillion, Bertram’s mother. For she commands the virtuous ground: for example, disregarding Helena’s low birth and encouraging her to pursue her love to court; being appalled at her son’s shameful conduct; and – the clincher  – proving fond of her Fool. And Janie Dee is indeed excellent in the part, sensitive and graceful. Similarly, the resourceful and single-minded Helena (a winning Ellie Piercy) is often adopted as the starry role because she’s more than smart enough to get her man. Never mind that he cannot see whom he’s in bed with … and that she should love such a cad.

 

However, for me, it’s a shaven headed Sam Cox as the King of France who holds the stage. He has

Helena (Ellie Pierce) and the King of France (Sam Cox). Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Helena (Ellie Pierce) and the King of France (Sam Cox).
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

done this before, of course, notably as Pistol in Henry V (see our review).  In All’s Well though the king’s word carries, is loud and absolute and the clarity of Cox’s diction does it proud. It creates and sustains an order that this otherwise wayward piece cannot find for itself. It also allows humour into unlikely lines: ‘I am wrapp’d in dismal thinking’, for instance, or ‘Take her away; I do not like her now.’ Over the top? Just possibly; but on screen Cox’s face is often in close-up and you do not question either the expression or the voice.

The Globe’s two central pillars are dressed in purple and the play is certainly effusive. This production gives it Attitude, capital ‘A’ and a sharper, more strategic sense of its own worth than its stage history suggests. Its closing dance sequence is a brave show just by itself.

Alan Brown,
Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com

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