After last year's terrific Henry IV, which won an Olivier Best Actor award for Roger Allam as Falstaff, Shakespeare's Globe has found another winner, with a far more tricky play. Director John Dove turns All's Well That Ends Well into a deeply human, funny and touching story in which Janie Dee as the Countess and Ellie Piercy as the long-suffering Helena are outstanding.
In its early years the cream of the acting profession rather looked down their noses at the Globe. Back in the late 1990s it wasn't seen as a real theatre for Shakespeareans, rather a tourist trap or at best a place to spend a warm and undemanding summer evening, like the theatre in Regent's Park. Mark Rylance quickly changed all that, with a mixture of traditional and experimental ways of doing Shakespeare. Loved by its audiences, unsubsidised by the taxpayer, still offering standing places for a fiver, occasionally drowned out by passing planes and helicopters, the theatre is now stronger than ever under the artistic leadership of Dominic Dromgoole, though some of the pioneering atmosphere of the Rylance era has been lost.
This production ranks with the 2009 As You Like It and last year's Henry IV as among the very best the Globe has created -- and I've seen the vast majority of its shows over the last decade and a half. Janie Dee is a hugely versatile top-rank star and multiple Olivier winner, like Roger Allam, though I've never seen her in Shakespeare before. Even the most experienced performers sometimes struggle at first to come to terms with the very different style of acting required at the Globe, but she brings it off faultlessly, projecting a mixture of compassion, warmth and humour. In the opening scene, where Helena weeps at the departure of Bertram, the Countess's son, Dee brings her to her senses with a light slap on the cheek that suggests a deep well of mutual affection. Ellie Piercy as Helena, the girl who eventually gets her man, conveys a mixture of vulnerability and determination that is very appealing; together these two actresses hold the audience from the start in the palms of their hands and never let them go.
All's Well That Ends Well is seen as one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays' and is not often performed; I saw Gregory Doran's 2003 production for the RSC with Judi Dench, and a less satisfactory version directed by Marianne Elliott in 2009 which dipped the play into an incoherent mixture of Victorian fairy tale and La Dolce Vita. John Dove sticks to early 17th century costumes and a simple design based on Rembrandt etchings of Dutch landscapes. Rather than shoehorning the play into a stylistic concept as some Globe directors do, he lets the characters develop and makes the text's meaning crystal clear. There is another outstanding performance by Sam Cox as the King of France, who becomes the most sympathetic male character in the play. Bertram is a fairly thankless part, but he's more than just an undiluted villain. His moral and psychological journey remains largely unexplained by Shakespeare, leaving the actor playing him with something of a vacuum to fill. Aristocratic twerp, overgrown schoolboy, serial dissembler? Bertram is all these things, but he also has to be attractive enough for Helena to love him to distraction. Sam Crane (last year's Hotspur) captures his moral ambivalence but seems to be still searching for other aspects of the character.
James Garnon, another experienced Globe actor recently seen as Macbeth, is well cast as the bombastic Parolles; and it's not his fault that the role leaves him on the fringes of the plot, rather than at the centre of the story like Falstaff. Some productions (not this one) build up the relationship between Bertram and Parolles to help flesh out the young aristocrat's character. While other characters who are humiliated by Shakespeare (Malvolio, Falstaff) evoke sympathy from the audience, Parolles never does.
This production, despite only being in its second preview performance on the night I saw it, is polished and pitch-perfect, with no awkward pauses or uncertainties. It's helped by comic timing and a perfectly judged balance between actors playing to each other and to the audience. Before the start of the play the cast come on stage in costume and chat to the audience for a few minutes, breaking the ice and setting up a creative partnership. I've seen this sort of thing done before at the Globe, but never so well; it's the kind of barrier-breaking which makes the Globe experience different from a visit to the RSC. Another of this production's strengths comes from the music -- an unorthodox blend of sometimes harsh tunes played on period instruments by William Lyons and a small ensemble.
Leaving the theatre, I felt I should revise my over-hasty opinion from 2009 that this is a play Shakespeare dashed off in a hurry; it still has its problems, but it contains some of his best-written female characters. It will never be as popular as Twelfth Night or As You Like It, but it's far too entertaining to be dismissed as a problem play. This production is as good as you're ever like to see. Buy a ticket before it sells out.