All’s Well That Ends Well, at the National Theatre, Oliver


Does my head look big in this?

does my head look big in this?

If Tim Burton ever decided to turn his hand to directing Shakespeare it would probably look something like Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well, with its combination of a fairytale story and gothic design Elliott’s vision offers a solution to Shakespeare’s more tricky and little-performed “problem” play.


The poor orphaned Helena is in the agony of unrequited love towards the rich nobleman Bertram. When she hears that the King of France is ill she uses her knowledge of medicine, which she learnt from her late physician father, and brings him back to good health. As a reward he offers her the hand of any man in marriage, to which, without hesitation, she chooses Bertram. Even though they wed Bertram is a reluctant husband, he does not want to consummate the relationship and flees at the first opportunity. And so begins Helena’s attempt to change the situation.


Decay is everywhere in the play with Helena’s recently dead father, ageing authority figures, and the fear of death. Rae Smith’s design reflects the gloom perfectly delving into German expressionism with large silhouettes, black towers, and dark branches filling the stage. In this bleak world, full of greys and blacks, it is Helena who is seen travelling across Europe complete with her Little Red Riding Hood-like coat, curing the King and bringing about her “happy ending”.


Whilst the audience may have problems with Shakespearean women like Helena going after men who don’t deserve them (just think of Portia going after the money loving Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice), Elliott leaves it up to us to decide whether Helena is a redeemer, fixing the problems of the play, or a tragic figure, chasing after a cad who doesn’t want her.


The play is still marred by the speedy and frivolous denouement, but strong performances come in the form of Michelle Terry’s Helena and Oliver Ford Davies’ King. Watch this for Elliott’s stunning direction, it’s a rare and rich treat for the eyes.


Runs till 1 October.


To see or not to see: * * * *


One response to “All’s Well That Ends Well, at the National Theatre, Oliver

  1. Sounds really good, shame I managed to miss it! I hope it comes to the West End – but given how everything there seems to be a musical or a movie spin-off, I won’t hold my breath . . .

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