Many fine actors and directors have failed to make ‘All’s Well’ end well. It’s the most problematic of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. And its biggest problem is Bertram, the posh lordling whom middle-class heroine Helena pursues and marries. He’s a cad, and, worse, a failed one – his lies are unmasked to such a humiliating extent that he can’t even boast the glamour of being a successful scoundrel. So it’s stonkingly impressive that John Dove (who also directed the Globe’s 2010 hit, ‘Anne Bolyen’) has discovered such a pacy, romantic coming-of-age story that not only ends well but also has you cheering that happy conclusion all the way.
Youth is the key to unlock the happiness in a play that’s often a lot sadder, and a little wiser, than this irrepressible production. Sam Crane’s excellent Bertram is, touchingly, a mixed-up kid who’s desperate to impress Sam Cox’s puissant King of France as much as his dead father once did.
When his mother’s attendant, Helena, miraculously cures the King of his life-threatening illness then demands Bertram as her reward, he’s demeaned and thoroughly upstaged. Dove makes it utterly plausible that he runs away to make his mark in the wars and sow his wild oats out of hurt pride – not lack of love for Helena: even his cockiest, cruellest protestations are undermined by the fact that he keeps her handkerchief with him all the time. But Ellie Piercy’s intense, straight Helena is a slow-burner compared to Bertram’s big popinjay of a friend, Parolles, who leads him fashionably astray but doesn’t quite have the cojones to justify his codpiece.
Actor James Garnon goes at Parolles like a young, bog brush-haired Falstaff, bullshitting his way to both glory and disgrace with plummy relish. It’s a show-stealing role. But every part is played with endearing charisma in a problem play which has been brilliantly rejigged as an uplifting rom-com.
Bertram’s unusually yummy mummy, played by the delightful Janie Dee, bubbles with wit – and looks like she’d be a very merry widow given half a chance. The talented ensemble softens the groundlings up by flirting with them before the play starts. Even lugubrious types like the King and the Countess’s Fool are obviously well-loved and valued by those around them, making their melancholy into a miserablism which it’s a pleasure to laugh at. By the time they hit the dancefloor, in period and in character, that happy climax is not only well-earned, it’s a comic triumph.