Updated: Sep 25, 2022
Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" is often described as a problem play, and watching the RSC's latest production, set in the present day and filled to the brim with social media references, it is clear to see why.
The play revolves around Helena (Rosie Sheehy). She fancies Bertram (Benjamin Westerby), but Bertram doesn't fancy her. When Helena is able to cure the King of France (Bruce Alexander, clearly having a whale of a time in the role), she is given the opportunity to marry any man of her choosing. Of course, everyone expects her to choose one of the princes, but instead she chooses Bertram.
To escape the marriage, Bertram runs away to war in Florence. Helena follows in disguise, and coerces Bertram into sleeping with her by disguising herself. Having consummated the marriage, and now pregnant with his child, Bertram is forced to accept Helena as his wife, and they all live happily ever after... right?
When looking at the story through today's lens, there are obvious problems that crop up. The main being Helena coercing Bertram into non-consensual sex. Bertram isn't particularly nice to Helena either. In fact, neither of these two main characters are very likeable.
The far more engaging aspect of the story comes from the side plot, which follows Bertram's friend Parolles (the excellent Jamie Wilkes). He spends most of the first half of the play bragging about his fighting ability and physical prowess, and one can see how he could also become unlikeable as a result. However, Wilkes plays him with such cheeky enthusiasm that you can't help but root for him. That is why, in the second half of the play, the downfall of Parolles is so sad. The production heavily leans into this - it is clear they want to perform this play as more than just a comedy.
Parolles is tricked by the other soldiers into thinking he has been kidnapped by the enemy. Blindfolded and tied up, the soldiers taunt Parolles by putting on fake voices. In the RSC's updated production, they cock guns and push their muzzles against his temple. They strip him down to his Captain America underpants and film him and post the videos on social media. The whole scene is horrifying to watch - the recordings are projected on to the back wall of the stage, and comments from "online viewers" describe how they would like to do the same or worse to Parolles and other people (yes, Boris Johnson gets a mention...).
The production strays from its comedic roots in places, but is still very funny in others. Bertram's face surrounded by love hearts is projected on the back wall during one of Helena's speeches. Parolles and Lafew (Simon Coates) have an excellent sparring match where they throw very funny insults at each other (my favourite was Lafew accusing Parolles of being a hen).
The play avoids the usual "happy ending" however, choosing to just end the play immediately after the decision for Bertram and Helena to stay together has been made (a decision made by the king). Overall, a very enjoyable and thought-provoking play and, in my opinion, one of the RSC's best offerings in recent years.
'All's Well That Ends Well' plays in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 8th October.
Tom Morley, September 2022