Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Bristol production of All’s Well That Ends Well gets plenty of laughs while exploring the dark world of Shakespearean sexual politics

[Images by Mark Douet]

As I watch the actors dance at the end of All’s Well that Ends Well in Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre, I’m unnerved by the contradictory play I’ve just seen. Intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny, All’s Well that Ends Well also tells some uncomfortable truths about sex, love and marriage.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _80A3598
The way in which determined Helena (Eleanor Yates) single-mindedly corners Bertram (Craig Fuller) into marriage, and finally love, raises disturbing questions. Bertram’s disgust at Helena’s low social status and his unwillingness to consummate their marriage is overcome by a sneaky bed trick and Helena’s faked death. Courtship led alternately by devotion, duty, deception and finally death, comes to a head in a play that cuts close to the bone.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _80A3569
Helena’s anomalous position at the French court as the daughter of a celebrated doctor allows her to cure the French King (Christopher Bianchi) of an anal fistula, securing in exchange Bertram’s reluctant hand. The embarrassing bodily illness lurking behind the sacrament of marriage hints at the raw sexual nature of desire that beats at the heart of all polite courtship, even pulsating behind Helena’s virginal devotion.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _80A3296
This SATF production was partially rewritten by Dominic Power to “add an interesting layer or two to the central relationship” (according to Artistic Director Andrew Hilton) and very much zooms in on Bertram and Helena. The production is set in mid-19th century Europe during the troubled years of the Franco-Austrian War and Italian unification.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _31B8735
The army camp’s masculine camaraderie and banter adds an interesting counterbalance to the French court, obsessed with courtship and curing the King.
The raucous atmosphere of the army camp is also reflected in Bertram’s indiscriminate male sexuality as the soldier-seducer of virgins. He gets his comeuppance in the aforementioned bed trick scene, not realising that beautiful local virgin Diana (Isabella Marshall) has been replaced by Helena.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _31B8418
The whole cast effuses energy and enthusiasm, clearly enjoying the richness of the text. With her expressive face and impeccable comic timing, Julia Hills gives a brilliant performance as Bertram’s mother, the Countess of Rousillon. Her tenderness towards Helena – devastated by Bertram’s desertion – is truly moving.

All's Well at STF.  Photo by Mark Douet _31B7266
Another tour de force is Paul Currier as the boorish and pontificating soldier Parolles, whose emasculating humiliation at the hands of his fellow soldiers is both comic and disturbing. Eleanor Yates, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Helena, combining steely determination with loving devotion.