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All's Well That Ends Well

Review - All's Well That Ends Well at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

It's a curious fact of Shakespearean life how some plays go in and out of fashion: we've lately been seeing a lot of Julius Caesars (no doubt thanks to affinities with Donald Trump), and we always see a lot of Hamlets and Macbeths (both the RSC and NT are both set to produce new productions of the latter in February and March).

But All's Well That Ends Well, one of those Shakespeare plays routinely described as a "problem" play, is hardly done these days anymore. On the day of the press night of the Globe's new revival, I was at lunch with four other critics and I was the only one who could claim to have seen it before, and that was over 35 years ago when Trevor Nunn directed Peggy Ashcroft for the RSC - though the RSC did subsequently also revive it in 1992 and 2003 as well.

Yet the play's naked portrait of misogyny could prove to be a bellwether in the conflicted climate of sexual abuse and harassment charges that we live in now: as my colleague Matt Wolf noted in his review for the Arts Desk, Helena - the virgin who longs to couple up with a not-very-nice man called Bertram - could "qualify as a founder member of the Bard's own #MeToo brigade were there not the complicating factor that Bertram is at least honest enough at the start to warn Helena off him. The tension of the play lies in Helena's refusal to read the tea leaves."

It's a dark, tangled and forbidding story, and yet the Globe's revival - programmed by Emma Rice as part of her final foreshortened run as artistic director of the theatre, and directed by Caroline Byrne - offers a properly female perspective. The production's dramaturg Annie Siddons writes in a programme note, "In this world there is a rigid class structure and an entrenched patriarchy that can be overthrown by a woman with healing knowledge, self-belief, sexual desire and determination."

It becomes a play about the power of female agency instead of subjugation. And Byrne's production, played in the atmospheric sepulchral but magical gloom of the entirely candlelit Wanamaker Playhouse, unfolds its competing tensions with rigorous details.

It's not always easy to watch (let alone see), but it rewards the attention.

All's Well That Ends Well is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 3rd March.

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