Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare in the Squares

Summer means it is outdoor Shakespeare time even if it isn’t that warm of an evening yet, though Shakespeare in the Squares’ All’s Well That Ends Well is full of brightness

“You were beaten in Italy for picking a kernel out of a pomegranate”

The calendar says summer so whilst thermometers might disagree with chilly evenings still lingering, outdoor theatre programmers are forging ahead with their open-air Shakespeare productions popping up in all sorts of spaces across the country. Shakespeare in the Squares takes their productions to a luscious collection of squares and private garden spaces in London and this year, it is the relatively rarely-performed All’s Well That Ends Well getting its moment in the sun (or showers…).

Sioned Jones’ take on the play embraces both its musicality and physicality in a literal and metaphorical sense. The company of actor-musicians (fiddle, accordion, clarinet, multiple trombones!) open the show brightly but the inventive musical interventions throughout are used judiciously (the beautiful harmonies of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ eliding into the earwormish ‘Bella Ciao’ is simply glorious), an underscoring of the emotions of the play rather than a transformation into musical theatre.

At a moment when mumblecore Shakespeare seems all the rage (qv the Donmar’s Macbeth, Jamie Lloyd’s Romeo and Juliet, etc), it’s kinda refreshing to see some boldly declamatory performances being forefronted here, full of vigour and vibrancy as audience members are pressed into service ‘onstage’, the fourth wall well and truly shattered, the cooling outdoor air filled such well-spoken verse. There’s broad comic strokes – a doddering king with trombone farts, a Parolles who seems ready to jump in anyone’s lap – but also moments of true visual grace, as in the most elegant way of showing a pregnancy I think I’ve ever seen.

The play isn’t necessarily one of Shakespeare’s greatest. As ward of the Countess of Rossillon, Helena dare not dream of her true love, the Countess’ oafish son Bertram but when circumstances conspire to allow the King of France to her grant her any husband she desires, she picks Bertram who subsequently snubs and goes off to war in Italy. Despite this, she pursues him and plots to ensnare his feckless ass because…everyone loves a happy ending of being entrapped into continued marriage and parenthood?

Kalifa Taylor makes for a gorgeously engaging Helena, brimming with warmth and charisma as we grow to understand her lot and whilst Jack Ward’s Bertram is an appealing and amusing nice-but-dim type rather than an out-and-out cad, he’s a difficult character to ever really get behind as the play’s machinations unfold. It’s a credit to Jones’ production though that we’re rarely thinking this at the time, Lee Drage and Jacob Yolland’s collection of lords, soldiers and gentlemen around Bertram are excellently done and Fiona Bruce’s Countess is exasperated eloquence as she beholds her son’s shenanigans.

Throw in Toby Gordon’s bawdy Parolles (whose gulling scene arguably works better than Malvolio’s, for all I’ve said about the play), Claire-Monique Martin and Miiya Alexandra highly effective as Florentine conspirators amongst other roles, a frankly hilarious audience cameo as Lafew’s daughter Maudlin and a raft of beautiful locations in which to sample Shakespeare in the Squares, then all might yet end well. Just take a cardigan. And a mac. And a sunhat just in case.

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