Whether considered a problem play or no, the fact that All’s Well That Ends Well is performed relatively infrequently is testament to the inherent difficulties of the play. Helena’s relentless pursuit of a man who does not love her, her determination to have them betrothed, the way she later inveigles her way into his bed, the story is an uneasy tale to take in a world of more enlightened sexual politics and though Nancy Meckler’s production for the RSC, here in Newcastle for a week, shines a fantastical light on the play (although not as successfully as the National’s excellent Grimm-like version from 2009) I think the issue around its uncommon revival is more careful avoidance rather than criminal neglect.
Joanna Horton is good as the poor physician’s daughter who is adopted by the Countess of Rousillon yet finds herself falling in love with her ‘brother’, Alex Waldmann as a Prince Harry-inspired Bertram who soon heads abroad pretty sharpish. She follows him to the French court, winning the favour of the King by utilising her father’s knowledge and persuading him to offer Bertram’s unwilling hand in marriage as reward. Again he flees (this time to the battlefield) and again she follows, determined to get her man even if it means tricking him into bed and as one is meant to assume with the ginger Prince, combat has a maturing effect meaning that he allegedly becomes quite the catch and her doggedness is thus rewarded.
Meckler’s use of a modern-day aesthetic felt a little forced to be honest, its relocation adds little to the play and the trope of fatigues and rock music for the soldiers was like the theatrical equivalent of dad-dancing. The main appeal for me was seeing the third iteration of this ensemble in relatively quick succession and watching these actors in roles in which they are clearly comfortable – Greg Hicks’ agility was amusing to see as the rejuvenated King of France, Jonathan Slinger felt much more at home as the clownish Parolles and I liked Nicolas Tennant’s valiant attempts with the difficult character of Lavatch. Charlotte Cornwell really does have too little to do as the Countess though, a sadly underwritten part from the Bard.