As part of the Travelex £10 ticket season, the National Theatre has taken All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s less commonly performed plays, and placed the context in a fairy tale landscape where belief in happily ever afters is obligatory.
Like all good fairy tales, the story begins with a poor orphan, which in this case comes in the shape of the young, witty and sharp Helena (Michelle Terry). Head over heels in love with Bertram (George Rainsford), the son of her mistress the Countess of Rossillion (Clare Higgins), she plots a way to secure his hand in marriage. The shrewd maid travels to Paris where she successfully cures the aged and sickly King (Oliver Ford Davies), who in turn grants her wish to wed Bertram. But the vain and immature Lord is repulsed by the match and refuses to consummate the marriage, instead fleeing the King’s court and favour to fight in Italy with his friend and knave, the swaggering Parolles (Conleth Hill). Leaving a letter behind for Helena, he declares he will only call her his wife when she has possession of the family ring he never takes off and is pregnant with his child, a seemingly impossible task.
But Helena, not one of Shakespeare’s more demure and weak females, follows Bertram to Florence, determined, even in the face of such hatred, to fulfil Bertram’s demands. Finding her young husband lusting over a local girl, she devises a plan to trick him into bed, declaring the deception a mere means to the end if all is to end well.
Shakespeare’s play has often been criticised for its unrealistic mixture of cynicism and happily ever afters, but director Marianne Elliott has found a solution to the problem by monopolising the play’s fairy tale elements. The Countess of Rossillion becomes the old widow living in her gothic castle with Addams Family servants, Bertram becomes the handsome, floppy-haired, but foolish prince, Helena’s wedding is complete with Cinderella’s slippers and the King, wearing a Disney jewel-encrusted crown and vast electric blue ring, sits in his tower counting his money as if from the pages of a nursery rhyme. The backdrop is a vast sky of shadow projections, with cartoon owls hooting and wolves howling at the moon, as glitter rains from the sky and roses shower the characters on stage.
However, with plenty of bawdy humour and Helena’s ruthless determination to make a man who despises her her own, this is a fairy tale with an edge. And as the too good to be true conclusion plays out, even the most romantic audience member cannot fail to notice that perhaps not all is ending as well as it seems.