Marking Dame Judi Dench’s return to the RSC after many years away, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare lesser performed plays, transferred to London from the Swan in Stratford. It is called a problem play as it is neither fully comedy nor tragedy but a curious mixture of fairytale-like wonder, cold realism and gritty humour. Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, son of the Countess of Rousillon, but the only way she can gain him as a husband is as a reward for curing the King of France of a terrible ailment. He reacts badly to being forced into marriage with someone of lowly birth and so runs away to Italy to join the wars but not before fixing two fiendishly difficult conditions to their marriage, things he believes Helena will never be able to achieve but he does not count on her tenacity.
Even in a relatively minor part, which the Countess is it has to be said, Dench is a mesmerising performer, she manages so much with such economy of performance, the simplest gesture or twitch of the face speaks volumes and as the matriarch of the piece, she oozes a compassion and wisdom that makes a firm bedrock for the production. Gary Waldhorn as the King of France does well though as the most senior male character, rising from his sickbed to become an inspirational leader.
As the ‘romantic’ leads, I felt Jamie Glover suffered a little from Bertram’s limitations as a character, playing the cold arrogance well but not really doing enough to justify Helena’s enduring passion for him. This was exacerbated by a stellar performance from Claudie Blakley who brought such perky energy and likeability to another potentially problematic role, but creating something original and believable and utterly watchable. The rest of the company were fine, especially the soldiers in the scene where Parolles is hoodwinked into revealing his true colours and Guy Henry’s performance here actually managed to squeeze a little sympathy for this rogue despite his despicable behaviour and came close to stealing the show.
The production values were classy in their simplicity, the set cleverly designed and the costumes beautifully put together in dark greys with luxurious flashes of gold and copper and altogether, it made for a beautiful night’s entertainment. The only slight problem was Judi Dench’s scratchy throat but she struggled manfully on and had minions with glasses of water at her beck and call which was actually quite amusing to watch, summoned as they were with a mere flick of a wrist.