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A CurtainUp London London Review
All's Well That Ends Well

I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness. — Samuel Johnson Notes on the plays of Shakespeare 1765
All's Well That Ends Well
Ellie Piercy as Helena and Sam Crane as Betram (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)
This difficult play, a Shakespearean comedy with dark overtones gets an admirable production at Shakespeare's Globe and all was enhanced for me by a lecture from Professor Michael Dobson of Birkbeck College. This was a part of the Globe Education Programme, "Setting the Scene" lectures which take place every Tuesday and Thursday at 6pm about the nightly production. I am indebted to Professor Dobson for much of the background information in this review and I found that even for a completist there is much to learn about the more obscure plays in the canon.

The source material for All's Well That Ends Well is Boccaccio's Decameron, where the beautiful, talented and well born Giglietta de Narbonne heals the King of France's fistula and demands Beltrama as her husband as reward. He flees to Florence where he loves another but by deception Giglietta lies with him and becomes pregnant with twin boys. Beltrama decides that he will love and honour his wife and they live happily ever after.

In Shakespeare's version, the physician's daughter Helena (Ellie Piercy) is a servant but has Betram (Sam Crane)'s widowed mother's support to marry her son. Janie Dee plays the widowed Countess de Roussillion, Betram's mother. Helena cures the King of France's fistula but Bertram and his companion the boastful Parolles (James Garnon) go to fight in the Italian wars. Betram sends a letter saying Helena will only be his wife when she can produce the ring he wears and when she is with child fathered by him. The clever Helena fulfills both conditions and finally Betram accepts her as his wife.

Apparently All's Well That Ends Well was Jane Austen's favourite play and influenced her in the writing of Mansfield Park about Fanny Price, the poor girl who falls for her cousin but as you can see above, Dr Johnson's reaction to the play was very different. Because Helena consummates her marriage through deception, imagine if the sexes were reversed how we would look on a man bedding a reluctant woman in this way. An RSC production of All's Well That Ends Well" the unfortunate comedy" in New York in 1983, despite starring Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Harriet Walter, closed within a week so unpalatable was its content.

However with consummate skill, John Dove at the Globe has turned all that around and given the audience some amusement in this potentially dullest and improbable of Shakespearean comedies. James Garnon, a veteran of the Globe stage makes much of Parolles who is kidnapped, blindfolded and tricked by his own side into believing he is the prisoner of the enemy by someone pretending to translate a foreign tongue. After he has dissed his own side, he is of course relieved that he can relax and stop being the braggart and says the affirming line, "Simply the thing I am shall make me live" which somehow reminded me of La Cage Aux Folles' "I am what I am".

Janie Dee is a delight to watch as a rather younger than usual Countess and although Ellie Piercy's Helena is rather intense, all is explained by Sam Crane's adolescent Betram who naturally wants to sew a few wild oats before he has to settle down as a husband. The audience enjoyed many of the graphic lines; the king "wrapped in dismal thinkings" when he beilieves Helena to be dead and Lefeu's announcement of tears, "My eyes smell onions". In the tragedies I am often unhappy at the laughter excesses of the Globe audience but in a comedy why not?

The costume is authentic: bright colours, tight bodices and over the top Elizabethan fashions for Parolles and the columns draped in black with wrought iron hanging lights hung with ivy and vaguely French with black and white etchings of the countryside covering the back walls.

Rarely can All's Well That Ends Well have been such a pleasure!

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All's Well That Ends Well
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by John Dove

Starring: James Garnon, Janie Dee, Ellie Piercy, Sam Crane, Sam Cox
With: Michael Bertenshaw, Naomi Cranston, John Cummins, Ben Deery, Mary Doherty, Sophie Duval, Will Featherstone, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Colin Hurley, Laura Darrell, William Lyons, Paul Bevan, Nichols Perry, Neil Rowland, Richard Thomas
Movement: Siân Williams
Design: Michael Taylor
Composer: William Lyons
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Booking to 21st August 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th May 2011 performance at the Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT (Rail/Tube: London Bridge, St Pauls)

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