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All's Well That Ends Well
Touring (Stray Dogs) 2000

Straydogs is a small-scale touring company who will be playing their new production of Shakespeare around Britain through the summer and fall.

All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's most troublesome plays. In outline, it seems to be like As You Like It or Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy in which the spunky herione overcomes obstacles to win the guy. The problem is that this guy is a vain and bigoted bastard who doesn't deserve the girl, and she comes across as a bit of a masochist in her single-minded determination to win his love.

Helena is a poor but honourable girl raised in the home of the callow nobleman Bertram. When she uses her medical knowledge to save the King's life, he offers her any husband she wants, and she chooses Bertram. But he is so insulted by being married to a commoner that he swears never to accept her unless she can prove he has slept with her, and then runs off. She follows and eventually, with the aid of a girl he's trying to seduce, gets what she wants.

Rather than searching for ways to overcome or bypass the play's difficulties, as many others have, this trim production embraces them. Under Simon Godwin's direction, Helena (Rosanna Lowe) is self-effacing humbleness personified, so defined by that one sympathy-inducing note that the energy and inventiveness she eventually employs seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, no attempt is made to excuse or rehabilitate Neil Auster's Bertram, who ends the play the same despicable figure he was at the start. Indeed, a particularly clever bit of staging involving a blindfold emphasizes his resemblance to the cowardly fraud Parolles.

Sensitive textual editing doesn't try to escape the play's more rhetorical flourishes, as the cast savour the poetry. Combined with Gemma Fripp's subdued and autumnal visual design, the production's effects are predominantly aural, so that it could be transferred to radio with little loss.

The result of all these choices is an elegiac tone that is far from inappropriate. Rather than trying to force the play into a comic mode, they reveal within it a sorrowful commentary on the irrationality and irresistability of love.

The cast of six double roles inventively, each given an opportunity to shine. Georgina Roberts is a motherly Countess and no-nonsense Widow. while David Mitchell contrasts a wryly self-knowing Parolles with a genial King. If Joel Chalfen's Lafew has a bit too much of the Osric about him, Morag Cross's spunky Diana threatens to steal the second half from the more self-effacing Helena.

Straydogs' tour includes performances in Bath, Oxford, and a dozen other cities. Should your path cross theirs, this quietly moving production is well worth the visit.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - All's Well That Ends Well - Stray Dogs 2000