The problem for the director is whether to treat the play as an extremely dark comedy, as an exploration of sexual politics or as a modern day fairy tale.
Marianne Elliott chooses the latter option - and how. Drawing heavily from European folklore, we have Shakespeare as imagined by Charles Perrault. Rae Smith’s set conjures up a Mittel-Europa landscape, far from the arcadian France of Shakespeare’s. With a backdrop of wolves and owls and Lotte Reiniger-like silhouettes, we’re transported straight away to another world.
In truth, the symbolism is laid on a bit too heavily; the first act ends with a single spotlight on Helena's ballroom slippers, while she leaves the stage in pursuit of her would-be husband, and she dons a Red Riding Hood-like cloak for her pilgrimage south. But there are also moments when it works perfectly; the fairy tale motif is very effectively continued for the seduction scene with Helena and Diana both adopting a fox’s costume to beguile Bertram, as if to literally enchant him.
The play does feature that archetypal folklore figure, the mother substitute - in this case the Countess of Rosillion, Helena’s adopted mother. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that the step-mothers of folklore fame are representations of real mothers. This is a relationship that Shakespeare seems to have understood instinctively; the scene between the Countess and Helena, on the theme of motherhood, is a pivotal one and it's superbly played by Clare Higgins as the Countess and Michelle Terry. Higgins' rather stern demeanour disguises her true feelings, so the audience remains in suspense - it’s a beautifully played scene.
Terry gives a measured performance throughout. This is a woman who is not to give up virginity lightly and she magnificently captures the dignity and hopeless passion of the spurned bride.
Elliott hasn't ignored the comedy - much of it supplied by Conleth Hill as the swaggering Parolles, his self-awareness so flawed that he thinks Helena has chosen him when she points to Bertram. Oliver Ford Davies is a regal King, literally dancing for joy after his cure, while George Rainsford’s Bertram captures the perfect blend of snobbery and nobility for the flawed hero.
- Maxwell Cooter