All's Well is one of Shakespeare’s 'problem plays' - so called because they hover so uncertainly between tragedy and comedy. All's Well is rather misnamed - is it a happy ending given that Bertram is lumbered with a wife (and a child) he didn’t want while Helena has a husband who has already proved himself unreliable?
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.