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A CurtainUp London London Review
All's Well That Ends Well

The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.
— Helena (Act 1 scene 1)
All's Well That Ends Well
Conleth Hill (Parolles) and Michelle Terry (Helena)
(Photo: Simon Annand )
There is a jewel sparkling at the National Theatre, shedding its rainbow rays over the South Bank. That jewel is the latest production of All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Marianne Elliott and played by a, quite literally, rhinestone-studded cast.

The Olivier stage is transformed by designer Rae Smith into a magical, mystical place. A vast descending walkway slices across the space, erected out of black shards of timber that glisten with a coal-coloured frosty hew. Within this nightmare of slatted wood, two entrances feed actors onto the stage. One double-doorway glowing of gold, another single in shining silver, all embossed with images of long-fallen leaves.  

Above, two black castle keeps tower ominously, each sprouting dead branches that sweep the storm-cloud skies. A criss-cross of spider's web, complete with giant black scurrying spider, haunts the backdrop, which changes its silhouetted landscape with back-projected ease. Owls swoop, bats flutter, birds perch on branches and wolves howl their songs of threat and danger.  

This is a fairy-tale world. Like a silent, Gothic horror movie, the stage is set for this notoriously dark tragicomedy to unfold. It is a world of Brothers Grimm meets Oz meets Transylvania, where sparkling slippers are left meaningfully and sorrowfully on an empty stage, their owner rejected by a heartless husband and forced to follow him to a far-off land along a Blackened Brick Road. It is a world of Little Red Riding Hood, of the Princess and the Pea, of the Emperor's New Clothes and countless other folktale heroines and heroes.  

We meet first the family of the Countess of Rossillion. Her son, Bertram, is a valiant youth, or so it seems. His embassy to the French Court in Paris is imminent, accompanied by the braggartly and effete Parolles. Unbeknownst to him, he is loved, loved with a passion that knows no bounds. Bertram is secretly adored by his mother's gentlewoman, Helena. What follows takes the pair from Paris to Florence and back again to Rossillion. Bitter regret and subterfuge rule the perpetual night of this timeless tale of disaffection and disappointment, which all belie the hopeful message of All's Well That Ends Well.  

Clare Higgins is a glorious Countess. Displaying passion, grief and anger, Higgins seems perfectly suited to the knowing maternalism of this dignified Countess. The Countess might dote on her son, but her affections soon shift to the young girl he wrongs. When shown her son to be a liar and a womanizer, Higgins's Countess reacts as only a heartbroken mother can: with utter disgust for the son she has bred.  

George Rainsford's Bertram is likewise a joy to behold. Whether uttering pompous and self-serving platitudes to bed the girl he desires, or snarling his misogynistic contempt for his humble bride-to-be, Rainsford's Bertram stirs many a man in the audience to shift uncomfortably as they recognize themselves in his over-easy and dismissive disregard.  

Bertram's contempt is for the one young woman who truly deserves his love, but who so doesn't deserve him. Helena, played with feisty good humour by Michelle Terry, is superb as the story-book heroine who follows her love into battle in her bedraggled diamond-studded wedding gown. Terry breathes new life into the doggedly determined Helena, one which adds to the character's playfulness and ultimate pain. An innocent in a troubled folklore world, Terry's Helena needs all the guile she can muster to win back her erring husband. Terry rises to the challenge of her role and gains justified applause from her appreciative audience.  

Helena would not have got as far as the wedding night if she had not cured the King of France from a decidedly uncomfortable anal fistula. Oliver Ford Davies winces and grimaces as he rests his regal derrière on his cushioned throne. Resplendent in bejewelled crown and supported by a gem-adorned staff of office, Ford Davies looks for all as if he is the King not of France, but of Swarovski-land. An elderly dying monarch, he prances and dances with boyish glee once freed from agonizing discomfort. All the girl-physician asks in return is the husband of her choice. How little the king realises this choice will lead to so many trials and troubles.  

All the Swarovski in this sparkling world, however, cannot outshine the glorious performance of Conleth Hill as Parolles. Like a swaggering cross between a youthful Falstaff and an overweight untrussed Hamlet, Hill's Parolles flicks his ridiculously long hair, grinds his ridiculously lascivious hips, and utters his ridiculously affected dialogue with pure comic genius. Ever willing to believe himself the centre of every maiden's attention, ever willing to propose a duel, and ever willing to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction, this Parolles is all you could wish for in a Shakespearean cowardly bombast.  

With the Nosferatu wanderings of the Countess's Steward Rynaldo, played with humble decrepitude by the cadaver-like Michael Mears, and the gloriously underplayed pomposity of Michael Thomas's Lord Lafew, the scene is set for a wonderful evening. A jewel, a many-faceted jewel. Damien Hirst eat your heart out. The National have translated Shakespeare's wickedly dark play into their own multi-million pound memento mori, studding it with acting diamonds that pierce the delicious gloom of the Olivier auditorium. A wonderful production from beginning to end.  

All's Well That Ends Well
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Starring: Oliver Ford Davies, Conleth Hill, Clare Higgins, Janet Henfrey, Michelle Terry
With: Ben Allen, Cassie Atkinson , Jolyon Coy, Rob Delaney, Alex Felton, Hasina Haque, Robert Hastie, Brendan O'Hea, Tony Jayawardena, Sioned Jones, Elliot Levey, Michael Mears, Tom Padley, George Rainsford, Michael Thomas, Oliver Wilson
Projection Designers: Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll
Design: Rae Smith
Music: Adam Cork
Choreography: Liala Diallo
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Three hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 30th September 2009
Reviewed by Kevin Quarmby based on 9th June 2009 performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube Tube: Waterloo)
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