Anyone who’s seen promotional posters for this RSC production of All's Well That Ends Well would be forgiven for thinking it’s a vehicle for Judi Dench. In fact, her role, the Countess of Rossillion, is not a major one - she’s absent for a large chunk of the middle part of the play - so it’s sad the producers feel the need for such misleading advertising.

The play itself is performed fairly infrequently, which is strange, since it's by no means awful: the action is tightly plotted; there’s a memorable comic part in Parolles, a sort of younger, more sober Falstaff; and, while there are no big set-piece speeches or memorable poetry, that’s true of other plays that are far more often performed.

The real problems with All's Well, for modern audiences anyway, are the ‘hero’ Bertram, and Helena’s reaction to his betrayal and cruelty. Her dogged love, despite his appalling behaviour, and their reconciliation at the end strike a harsh chord in the 21st century. On the flipside to that, you can’t help feeling that Helena is a humourless prig from whom any man would run a mile. A play with such unappealing central characters is always going to be difficult.

Gregory Doran’s production, however, has triumphantly brought All's Well back into the public eye. He’s drawn out every nuance of humour but still maintained the air of sadness that underlines every scene. Even the reconciliation at the end is ambiguous as the ‘husband and wife’ stare at each other – a gap remains between them.

Claudie Blakley as Helena exhibits just the right degree of melancholia and still manages to make the character as sympathetic as possible – no mean feat. As Bertram, I found Jamie Glover rather colourless. He might be a bastard, but he should be an attractive bastard. And, as for Dame Judi? Admittedly, it’s wonderful to have her back performing Shakespeare on the London stage, but, while she’s excellent in an unchallenging part, her Countess serves only to remind us how few great Shakespearean roles there are for older women.

The highlights of the night are Guy Henry’s wonderfully extravagant and camp Parolles, relishing his verbosity, Charles Kay’s sardonic courtier Lefew and Gary Waldhorn’s capricious monarch, handing out favours and sentences in the same breath.

It’s great to see the RSC revive a rarely performed play rather than give us yet another Dream or Lear. And it’s even better when it produces an evening as good as this.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following review dates from December 2003 and this production’s original run at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Was it worth the wait? Twenty-four years after she last trod the boards at Stratford, Dame Judi Dench is back at the scene of former theatrical glory, in the role of the Countess of Rossillion. I have never seen an audience so expectant at an actor's arrival, nor hang so on their opening words. But then there is nothing like a dame; this dame anyhow.

It's difficult to analyse what Dench does exactly, but she does it wonderfully well. That she is the still, beating heart of this uneven play is without question. She speaks beautifully, of course, with complete authority. She does not appear to do very much but, in the key scene with Helena, her gentlewoman, in which she forces her to confess her love for her son, she wrings our heart.

All's Well That End's Well is not a play that's performed often and it's one that is not without its critics. Like the other 'problem' play, Measure for Measure, with which it is often bracketed, some of its central characters are very hard to warm to. That we are so involved in this production is a tribute to the talent of director Gregory Doran and a terrific cast from whom he elicits first-rate performances.

Helena (a fine, moving performance by Claudie Blakley) railroads the Countess of Rossillion's son Bertram (the effortlessly dashing Jamie Glover) into marriage after curing the King of France of a seemingly terminal illness. Bertram, who is a cold fish and proud with it, not unreasonably chafes at this and runs off to fight in the Italian wars, vowing in a letter to her that he will only be her husband if she becomes pregnant by him and gets his ancestral ring off him.

She does this by making out she is dead, following him to Italy and substituting herself in the bed of a woman towards whom he has dishonourable intentions. In a subsequent interrogation by the King of France, Bertram evades, dissembles, but then, when it's revealed that his wife is actually alive, weeps and confesses his love for her. The final scene, in which the two stand, apart, as the lights go down, suggests that there is some ambiguity about the play's title.

The costumes, by Deidre Clancy, updated here to the 17th century, are gorgeous - black giving way to a warm melange of colour in Florence - as is Paul Pyant's lighting. Among an outstanding cast, Gary Waldhorn is especially fine as the French king, Charles Kay as Lord Lefu, while Guy Henry as Parolles, the disreputable follower of Bertram, is very funny.

- Pete Wood