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All's Well with Albee

Shakespeare's "problem" play All's Well That Ends Well rarely poses a problem for its audience, and I count the four or five productions of it that I have seen, including the current one by John Dove at the Globe, among my happiest experiences.

Janie Dee is a bewitching Countess of Roussillon and comparative newcomer Ellie Piercy a touching and forthright Helena, the physician's daughter who pursues the man she loves, Bertram, until she snares him with the old bed trick during the foreign wars.

But the really original performance is that of Sam Crane as Bertram, who plays the role in a deeply melancholic vein, unhappy that he's been assigned to Helena as a reward for her curing of the King of France's fistula.

He avoids the usual nasty priggishness, making something much more interesting of his reluctance to play the poster boy role and succumbing, not too suprisingly, to an insistent, unknown "whore" -- who of course turns out to be Helena in disguise -- on the campaign trail. 

Even by Globe standards of involvement, the audience was absolutely hooked on this one at yesterday's matinee, though the place was far from full; All's Well simply hasn't been embraced along with such other "difficult" plays as Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, and I simply don't understand why this should be so. 
I missed Marianne Elliott's acclaimed Gothic fairytale production at the National but I still count Trevor Nunn's RSC version with Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess, Harriet Walter as Helena and Philip Franks as Bertram one of my all-time favourite RSC shows.

The forecast rain held off and the old summer magic is working once more along the river bank. Cleverly cut and played with great zip, All's Well rattles by in just two-and-a-half hours. I knew I still had three hours of Edward Albee at the Almeida to come, so I stocked up with a large sausage roll and nutty Eastern Mediterranean dessert in Borough Market. I felt thoroughly entitled to enjoy the day as "an outing."

As usual at the Almeida, recent and future alumni swell the first night crowd: Penny Downie and playwright husband Nick Dear, Stephen Poliakoff, Kate Fahy and -- much more of a surprise -- Tom Wilkinson, looking wonderfully rumpled and bad-tempered. No sign of artistic director Michael Attenborough, no doubt observing his usual, rather odd, superstition of steering clear of his own theatre on the opening night.

James Macdonald's hypnotic production confirms the play's status as a modern classic. You can see even more clearly now how A Delicate Balance and Pinter's The Homecoming changed domestic comedy for ever on both sides of the Atlantic at about the same time.

I have only the slightest of niggles. Imelda Staunton should try and play the accordion badly a bit better, and the women's lifeless wigs are abominable. In the last scene, it's like watching three tea cosies having a jaw. Why do actresses as good as Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton and Diana Hardcastle put up with it? And why don't audiences laugh them off the stage?

Otherwise, the show is a disturbing joy from start to finish. With Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind casting a mystical spell over the Young Vic and Mike Leigh's Ecstasy providing just the opposite of its own title, in a good way, at the Duchess, London theatregoers are spoilt for choice in the misery stakes. And there's plenty to drink, too.

The two characters in the Fosse -- and there is no more beautiful production in town at the moment -- swig at the schnapps bottle while setting out to sea. The Kilburn bed sit crowd in Ecstasy sup enough lager to float a new football team. And the Albee sitting room is the busiest bar along Upper Street, and that's saying something.

Pinter once mischievously described his plays as concerning the weasel under the cocktail cabinet. There's a whole crowd of them in Albee, and they're under the table because they can't stand up any more.

Perhaps Jon Fosse -- no relation of Bob, you will not need reminding -- should collaborate with Albee on an outward bound alcoholic musical one day: Weasel Down the Wind, anyone?








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