There are not enough joyous expletives to describe this first Shakespearean production of the RSC season at Stratford . Greg Doran's All's Well That Ends Well is perfect. Stunning performances, stunning setting and costumes, stunning lighting, literally stunning sound effects. Never has such a production burst onto the Swan Stratford stage with such energy, humour, pathos and near tragedy. This is a truly enthralling evening's entertainment from start to finish, a glorious romp through France and Italy, spurned wife seeking heartless cavalier husband, with the smattering of camp followers and bragging military men for good measure.
We knew we were in for a treat with the first entrance of Judi Dench as the Countess of Rosillion. Gliding effortlessly in a magnificent gown and collar of silver-grey silk, Dench played the Countess with subdued regal splendour. Dench is one of our nation's treasured stately dames; as the Countess she excels in dignity and careworn life experience, suffering the accusations directed towards her son with maternal Stoicism and solemn grace. A truly mesmerising performance by one of our greatest living actors.
The Countess's domain, the Court at Rosillion, is evocatively represented by the haunting lighting effects of Paul Pyant. Pyant throws shafts of hazy sunlight across the stage, filtered through apparently huge leaded light windows. At other times, characters huddle conspiratorially around a single candle, Pyant's skilled use of tiny stage mounted spotlights creating the impression of a fine Dutch genre painting, the figures sharply defined in caricatura.
The deceptively simple set by Stephen Brimson Lewis likewise complements this wonderful production. A vast expanse of slate-grey slabs, a frame of softened metallic surfaces, and the hint of mist covered forest is transformed by eleven huge candelabras into an expansive claustrophobia for the French regal palace. Brimson Lewis's design flows effortlessly into Deirdre Clancy's breathtaking costumes. The detail of these leather-clad bravadoes, or the gaudy extravagance of the King of France's outrageously pompous attire, or the tattered Moorish fashion of the dastardly comic Parolles, every design perfect in conception and execution. The costume designs alone, I know, any collector would fight to own.
As for the other performances of the evening, what can I say but excellent. Jamie Glover as Bertram, the son of the Countess who through a quirk of fate is presented by his King in marriage to a comparatively lowly physician's daughter, haughtily examines the horrors of marrying beneath his station. Glover petulantly stomps his disgust, and bravely faces death in war rather than his own perception of dishonour in marriage. He is, however, the author of his own undoing, grandly presenting his virginal bride with a task which through female determination and an admirable, if somewhat misplaced, sense of duty, love and honour, she rises to with alacrity.
The poor put upon young bride, Helena, is played with dogged determination by Claudie Blakley, whose intense sense of right drives her to follow the military camp into battle. The money she has obviously earned from saving the life of the King of France is used to bribe other women camp followers into fulfilling a bed trick motif similar to Measure for Measure. It all comes right in the end though, Blakley gaining the hand, and something more substantial, from her elusive husband. The dénouement of the play, where Helena confronts her man, carries a bitter taste for husband and wife alike. No future of marital bliss is suggested here, just a cold acceptance of fate and a loveless marriage of necessity imposed by a mighty monarch.
Into this melting pot of vows made and broken appears the braggartly captain Parolles, played with astonishing strength and humour by Guy Henry. Lumbering across the stage in bedraggled gaucho-style pantaloons, bedecked with ribbons and a somewhat stunted sword, Henry grunts and roars his military prowess to all who would listen. Strange then that this hero should more often be seen retreating rather than advancing into battle. Parolles' gulling by his fellow officers, and the ease with which he is tricked into betraying his best friends, displays the moral ineptitude of this boastful prodigal. His pathetic loss of face, and the knowledge that his name is forever linked with infamy and disgrace, releases Parolles from his pretence as he travels the land as a contrite beggar.
He returns to his arch detractor, the wise old Lord Lafeu, who enjoys a certain malicious glee at his old adversary's misfortune, but cheerfully invites the beggar to join him for supper. Charles Kay times his asides and glances impeccably, communicating his wry and subtle comments to the audience with breathtaking ease. Parolles also confronts the fool to the Rosillion household, Lavache, played with Irish panache by Mark Lambert. The translation of early modern clownish humour to the postmodern stage is always fraught with difficulty. Lambert makes a valiant and successful job of this transfer, the intellectual ramblings of his court fool voicing those objections and observations with more candour than any self-seeking courtier dare entertain.
Presiding over all is the patriarchal authority of Gary Waldhorn as King of France. So convincing was Waldhorn's Lear-like portrayal of the sick old king that his transformation into strapping cavorting monarch was at once shocking and magical. Given a new lease of life by the ministrations of Helena, the King rewards his female physician with whatever she desires. Of course, this desire is Bertram, and so the wheel of fortune is spun and the play gains its relentless momentum.
Greg Doran has created a wonderful production. The outrageous start to the second half of the play is greeted with delight by the audience. Suffice to say, this year's season of plays at the Swan begins with a bang and not a whimper. The visual feast of Glover careering on his war horse into battle is pure theatre. The controlled dignity of Dench's Countess a masterclass in performance technique. The whole play outrageously funny, sometimes painfully poignant, but always the finest that British theatre can produce. Words cannot express the pleasure All's Well That Ends Well gave me, and all those around me. Whatever you're doing, put it down and rush up to Stratford. You will not be disappointed.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003