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It can be disconcerting when you feel rather lukewarm about a play that ends up getting generally positive reviews.  But I’ll stick with my original assessment.  All’s Well That Ends Well is the National’s new Shakespeare production, directed by Marianne Elliott.  All’s Well is one of the ‘problem plays’ and not very frequently performed.  It’s a bit of a challenge; not a story audiences are familiar with, or one that has a great recent history of interpretations to respond to.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a well regarded daughter, cures the King of France of a fistula.  As a reward the King promises her any man in the kingdom as her husband.  She chooses the son of her Lady, Bertram, who isn’t too keen on marrying a common lass.  He declares he can not be called her husband until she is carrying his child with his ring on her finger.  So with the help of a young lady in Florence, a blindfold, and lingerie with a fox tail attached (in this production), she tricks Bertram into consummating their union.

Here Elliot decided to frame the story as a dark fairytale; with moving castles, animated owls and wolves.  I imagine this was a strategy to introduce the unfamiliar play to the audience without confusing or boring them.  It wasn’t a bad idea, but was probably taken a tad too far.   Helene leaves her sparkling pink slippers centre stage just before interval, with a spot was trained tightly on them as the house went dark – she’s both a lost Dorothy and an abandoned Cinderella.  The rings the two mismatched lovers exchange are fitted with little light bulbs, fairy lights adorn Florence on the soldiers arrival. Ninox would have cringed to see the 1940’s camera flash cliché is still going strong on stage.

The performance I saw was a preview and there were a couple of teething problems.  The lights in the rings kept switching off unexpectedly.  Janet Henfrey (playing the widow) took a tumble on the slippery paper petals carpeting the stage at the end of the play.

I particularly disliked the sound direction – not only did the first half suffer from electronic wind syndrome, wolves howled and owls whooped over almost every softly spoken line.

As I said at the start, the play has otherwise been very well received, and all of the actors’ performances were very satisfactory.  It just seems that theatrical restraint is passé.

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare

National Theatre London
26/05/09

ETA.  The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig isn’t too keen on it either.

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