There are various reasons why Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ doesn’t get staged that often. Its characters’ unrelatably weird behaviour is definitely a biggie.
The plot – which I’m just going to spoiler here – follows Helena, a low-born ward of the Countess of Rossillion, who cures the ailing King of France and claims as her prize the hand of the Countess’s son, Bertram. He is so horrified at the idea of marrying a commoner that he runs off to join the war in Italy, stipulating that he’ll only return in the unlikely event that his virgin wife falls pregnant with his child. Rather than bid good riddance, Helena decides to see what she can do.
Following her harrowing 2016 ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, director Caroline Byrne brings a moral and emotional clarity to bear here which cuts through some of this play’s more bewildering details. Rarely leaving the stage, Ellora Torchia is excellent as a smart, funny, self-possessed Helena. She’s not some drippy little girl crushing away; she’s a woman who knows what she wants, knows what she’s owed and believes the right thing to do is to set about getting it. By contrast, Bertram – played by Will Merrick with the air of Prince Harry in his wild years – is clearly a colossal bellend.
It is still hard to rationalise Helena’s motivations in contemporary terms. Does she still harbour affection for Bertram after he runs off? Or was that not really the deal with Jacobean marriage anyway? But, crucially, she is likeable and morally upright, and it is very easy to root for her as the hero. Bertram, meanwhile, seems to be an avatar of the brittle male ego, slowly brought low, less by Helena’s actions than by a gradual dismantling of his inflated self-image.
In part this comes from discovering that his swaggering BFF Paroles is a not the Stallone-like lone hero he’s made himself out to be, but rather a jumped up braggart who sings like a canary at the merest hint of physical threat. In the gender-balanced cast, a good proportion of the evening’s chuckles comes from a preening, puffed up Imogen Doel as Paroles. A consistently amusing actor with a gift for both the deadpan and the manic, she pretty much wrings a laugh out of every line, single-handedly leavening all the moral knottiness.
Byrne’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ isn’t quite the emotionally ruinous triumph that her ‘Shew’ was. But it is undoubtedly a success, turning a morally murky play into a celebration of female strength and tenacity – and giving us a bloody good time while doing it.