All’s Well That Ends Well is a play I had never seen, one that hasn’t been staged in Australia for decades. It’s one of Shakespeare’s least popular works. As a play, it’s outrageously implausible even by Shakespeare’s standards, and the two central characters, who end up together by play’s end, both deserve a good kick. So the new production by Damien Ryan at the Seymour Centre is quite an achievement. Ryan and his Sport for Jove troupe have taken a play that’s unwieldy and unfamiliar and made it funny and admirably straightforward.
Helena (Francesca Savige) is in love with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan), so, before even confessing her feelings to him, she engineers a fait accompli. The King of France is dying, and Helena can cure him – if he agrees to give her the hand of any suitor she chooses in marriage. Of course, she fixes the king and chooses Bertram, who’s none too pleased at being forced into a marriage arranged without his consent. So he flounces off to war, and Helena is sad. But not for long. Soon she travels to the wars and tricks Bertram into bed. He thinks he’s sleeping with another woman, but Helena has arranged it all and in the dark she subs in. Bertram, for all his trials, is no peach either. At the play’s denouement, he’s confronted by the woman he thinks he slept with, and swears off all knowledge.
Ryan makes all this palatable by keeping everything moving at a clip, and he’s helped enormously by his design team, whose work is ingenious. Antoinette Barboutis and David Stalley as designer and sound designer respectively have great fun with everything martial. Bertram’s soldiers run around the stage and climb over an obstacle course to the tune of French rap, and while I’m no connoisseur, it’s pretty exhilarating. Its central couple might not be one for the ages, but as a feat of adaptation this All’s Well That Ends Well is unlikely to be bettered.
All’s Well That End’s Well is on at Seymour Centre until April 12.