Review: All’s Well That Ends Well. RSC. Stratford Upon Avon.

All’s Well That Ends Well, RSC,

Blanche McIntyre’s All’s Well That Ends Well at the RSC is a riotous, sometimes bonkers, comedy, which still presents some heavyweight themes without flinching. It’s a fast-paced, colourful exposé on the themes of unrequited love, individual desire and self-awareness, and with an onslaught of social media messaging throughout, it spells out in flashing neon its current relevance.

All’s Well is a challenging play, not often performed, perhaps because the lead characters are fairly unappealing. Both deceive and dissemble for their own desires. Both are ruthless and outspoken. A generous soul would say it is just the arrogance of youth rebelling against the constraints of courtly manners.

Helen is a feisty, outspoken young woman, constantly challenging the status quo (everything she says about female subjugation rings oh-so-true), and she flatly refuses to smile or simper to get her way. As this almost brutal Helen, Rosie Sheehy’s powerful performance is grounded and gutsy, yet still full of genuine emotion.  Despite the head-strong character, Sheehy’s vulnerability allows for a sympathetic response.

Helen’s hearts-desire lies in Bertram, a particularly weak and vacillating character, whom Benjamin Westerby manages to make entirely repugnant. He is rude and selfish, unethical and a manipulator, and Bertram is given little in the way of text to work with. His flashy suits and jazzy hoodies convey his self-absorption and contrast with Helens dull and practical costumes.

Parolles, friend of Bertram and a traditional ‘braggart’ figure, is the fulcrum of the comedy in this production. Presented as an American mercenary, full of his own inflated self-opinion and tales of daring-do, he struts around until his bravado crumples in the face of the slightest adversity. Jamie Wilkes as Parolles is outstanding, having an almost acrobatic physicality in his body and scaling the full emotive range. His repartee with Lafew (Simon Coates) is pitch perfect and the pair have a fizzing reaction through language every time they are on-stage.  Many an audience member also becomes Parolles’ confidante, and with a sprinkling of modern-day phrasing and mannerisms, he is warmly received.

When Parolles’ fellow soldiers set out to burst his egotistical bubble through a trick, much humour ensues. Micah Balfour and Eloise Secker, as sibling solders Dumain and leaders of the troops, stand out with their ease and interpretation of the language and natural chemistry, beautifully balanced performances.

With a cheeky and challenging jester in Lavache (Will Edgerton), a charming but straight-talking Diana (Olivia Onyehara) who helps with a crucial deception of Bertram, and a subtly-rendered and warm King of France (Bruce Alexander), there is plenty to enjoy and admire in the skill and talent of the whole company.

Robert Innes Hopkins has had great fun with the design, along with dynamic video projections by Douglas O’Connell pointing clearly at the present-day comparatives. A ‘MouseTrap’-like cage (think 1970s board game) which rotates and transforms into hospital bay, royal apartment and military encampment, amongst other things, takes centre stage. The colour palette is brightly coloured and punchy, turquoise and raspberry and gold contrasted against the dull camo of the soldiers. Further heightened by the contemporary music, from rock guitar to rave by DJ Walde, it’s a full-on assault on the senses.

One of the enduring fascinations with Shakespeare is how a man writing hundreds of years ago can still have so much to say to us today. And to make us laugh, out-loud and uproariously, in a time that he could not even have imagined? Amazing. But part of the genius is of course in the re-discovery of new ways of looking at things, and through Blanche McIntyre’s clever, playful and incisive direction, we get to know these rarely seen characters come to life.

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