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All's Well That Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – review

The RSC completes its mission to present the full cycle of Shakespeare's plays with this new staging

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The All's Well That Ends Well company
© RSC, photo by Ikin Yum

There are so many conflicting views about this prime example of one of Shakespeare's so-called "problem" plays that it's easy to understand why companies and directors choose to leave it well alone. Its central characters, the on-off husband-and-wife pairing of Helena and Bertram, are a difficult, largely unsympathetic twosome with little beyond their own self-interest to recommend them.

Elsewhere, the posturing captain Parolles is a thoroughly narcissistic braggart, there's an extremely uncomfortable interrogation scene and the resolution is almost laughably convenient, even by Shakespeare's standards. But the Royal Shakespeare Company under its then new artistic director Gregory Doran committed a decade ago to producing the entire canon, so there was going to be no avoiding it.

Now, with Doran imminently exiting stage left, All's Well completes that ten-year mission and director Blanche McIntyre makes sure it does so with the title of this final play ringing a resounding endorsement for the project as a whole, as well as this production in its own right.

She wisely forgoes any attempt at reconciling the disparate threads of the text, opting instead for ambiguity and embracing its unlikable elements willingly. Focusing on one or two central themes, she places it, with the assistance of designer Robert Innes Hopkins and her creative team, firmly in the 21st century, where things like social media, military drones and the overriding laws of Insta allow her plenty of scope to explore superficiality, fake news and the hidden shallows of online romance.

It's a take that stands up under scrutiny, although purists may balk at some of the modern textual liberties, and it's well executed by a cast that buys into the concept and runs with it. Rosie Sheehy's Helena is determinedly antagonistic but clearly delivered and unapologetically defiant. The object of her affection, Benjamin Westerby's Bertram, defies any rational justification yet somehow comes across as fallible and all too believable in his macho egotism.

Bruce Alexander lends gravitas as the King of France, at once bewildered and infuriated by the deceits and diversions being played out by the younger courtiers, and Olivia Onyehara is innocent and touching as Diana, the Florentine virgin whose modesty is threatened by the swaggering Bertram but who earns the last laugh for the ill-used Helena.

The finest performance of the night comes from Jamie Wilkes, whose RSC career continues to shine. His Parolles is totally recognisable to any connoisseurs of Love Island and its ilk, and yet his ultimate downfall and conversion are both touching and powerful. Wilkes has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry almost in the same moment, and he uses the craft to devastating effect.

There are some effective contemporary references – Bridgerton makes a brief appearance, for example, and there's a neon-lit rave scene – while DJ Walde's music also sets a convincing tone, and the whole enterprise has an appropriately end-of-term party feel about it. As a sign-off from the canon, in the lead-up to the First Folio quatercentenary in 2023, it's gratifying to be able to report that all does indeed end well.

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