After 400 years, the ways of producing Shakespeare remain astonishing in their infinite variety. Age cannot wither him, nor fashion nor Thespian controversy nor budget cuts — nor, I hope, the threatened loss of his plays as A level set texts. Though the point hardly needs proving, it is strikingly demonstrated by two of his comedies playing in London at the moment, at the opposite extremes of Shakespearean production. As You Like It is presented in the sparsest conventions of 16th-century theatre at the Globe and All's Well That Ends Well at the Olivier is interpreted as a hugely imaginative, anachronistic, high-tech, kitsch-Gothic fairytale. Both productions are triumphantly successful despite some unevenness; together they prove that in the hands of gifted directors (Thea Sharrock and Marianne Elliott respectively) Shakespeare can be almost anything and still entirely him.
All's Well is a notoriously difficult play, and certainly unsatisfactory as a comedy because it is almost impossible for a contemporary audience to accept that it does end well. Perhaps that's why it isn't very often performed. This production is the first ever at the National Theatre.
The plot is one of Shakespeare's least familiar. For those who need reminding, Helena, the resourceful orphaned daughter of a mere apothecary, has the presumption to fall in love with the noble young Bertram and to win his hand, despite the immense difference between them in rank, as a reward for curing their king of a fistula through her dead father's great chymical arts. Bertram rejects her immediately after the wedding ceremony, as well he might, because in this production she is determinedly plain and rather too plainly determined.
However, the heroine then tricks him into bed, fatherhood and public acknowledgment, by taking the place between the sheets of a Florentine virgin he feels like ravishing. This, though effective, does not bode well for the future, at least not in contemporary terms of companionate marriage and perhaps not even in Elizabethan terms of arranged marriages, which Shakespeare is constantly subverting anyway. But this is not the stuff of naturalism: it is such stuff as dreams are made on, and nightmares too. It is the place of hopeless wishes and strange transformations, dark thickets of confusion, cunning and betrayal, of ambiguity and the unmasking of lies. It makes perfect sense to present All's Well as the harsher kind of fairy story.
Here the director, and the designer Rae Smith, take this to delightful, child-like extremes. The eye is constantly intrigued by images from half-forgotten story-books, a red riding hood cloak, dramatic silhouettes of some of the characters in weird and Gothicky costumes, a curving path at the back of the stage down into darkness or up into adventures, into skies which drop gold dust or petals, or suddenly produce silly cut-out owls. The story is full of references to other stories, particularly to the Brothers Grimm. My companion described all this as "very Tim Burton", but that's fair enough, as Burton's bizarre films are multi-derivative, drawing heavily and in some of the same ways on these folk and fairy memories.