This is one of the rarely-staged Shakespeare plays that has eluded me thus far but I'm glad I got to see this three-hour production at the National Theatre Olivier auditorium at long last thanks to their £10 Travelex scheme.
All's Well That End's Well is a light romcom with an ironic punch hinted at in the title that's driven home in the final flash-photography horrorstruck pose from our loving couple, Helena and Bertram.
Blond handsome Bertram (George Rainsford), son of the recently widowed Countess of Rossillion (Clare Higgins) really is a dick with his floppy hair and slappable boyish charm. It's a wonder that the perky Helena wants him in the first place, but then I never found Hugh Grant a dish, either.
Played by Michelle Terry, who does a great job of filling in the spaces within the text with her appealing effervescence and would make a terrific Dr Who assistant, Helena is the orphaned daughter of the late Count's physician and has fallen in love with the brat. The Countess has taken her under her wing and facilitates her introduction at court where she treats the King of France (Oliver Ford Davies) who's been ill with a fistula.
Even though the King gives us a clue as to what a fistula is by clenching his hand into a claw (I had images of certain exotic activities hopping into my smutty mind), I just had to search and got " ... an abnormal connection or passageway between two epithelium-lined organs or vessels that normally do not connect."
None the wiser, I'll accept the hand job.
Anyhow, fist unclenched, we know that Helena has cured this powerful dude and now claims her reward. A lesser being would have demanded title, treasure, a palace or three, but values they are a changin'. Helena keeps it real in a society that now has room for romance and asks for marriage to Bertram.
Shallow and spoilt, he rejects her for being common, and goes off to war to avoid consummation, stating that should she manage to get his magnificent ring, handed down through generations, and fall pregnant with a child of his, he'll fulfill his duty.
There follows a comedy of mistaken identity and subterfuge wherein men are revealed to be treacherous snakes in the grass, cowardly liars and deeply closeted. It leaves you wondering why any fabulous woman would spend so much time and suffering in order to lock themselves into a lifelong relationship with them.
Duh! Oh, yeah, I geddit. Money and power, romance being but the superstructural offspring of the economic base. And this, comrades, is why capitalism (OK, the last days of feudalism where aristos are being displaced by merchants and professionals) distorts the human soul.
The burgeoning bourgeoisie has triumphed and secured its position but at what cost?
If that makes it sound like a flat polemic, it wasn't. That's just me cutting to the chase of what it was about. This production is actually a lot of fun and a special mention goes to Parolles (Falstaff lite played by Conleth Hill), a hilarious vain repository of everything sluggish and snailish in the male of the species dressed up as a superannuated heavy metal peacock who gets his humiliating comeuppance at the hands of his brother soldiers.
Of course, female ingenuity, wit and solidarity win out with a midnight tryst and Helena swapping identities with Diana, a great beauty who Bertram is crazy for. Helena fulfills Bertram's demands and wedlock can now ensue with celebrations and a wedding photographer to freeze the cast in a succession of telling tableaux.
All's Well That Ends Well, except for that very last shot ...
Bertram defies the King of France