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All's Well That Ends Well

Shakespeare's Blackest Comedy in Magdalen College Gardens
Timothy Newey on Thursday 14th May 2009

When Coleridge described All's Well That Ends Well as "not an agreeable story, but still full of love", he captured perfectly the generic instability the play presents. The play teeters on a delicate knife-edge between disgust and delight as Shakespeare portrays Helena's passionate love for Bertram, and the desperate lengths to which she will go to win his heart. When the King of France falls terminally ill, Helena promises to cure him if she can marry any Lord of her choice - she succeeds and chooses the reluctant and unwilling Bertram. After they are married, he leaves for war, preferring the risk of death to an unhappy matrimony. This violent clash of love and hatred has ensured that this black comedy has always remained one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays.

But the production for the Magdalen Garden Show does not shy away from the challenge. Instead, the characters' disturbing drive for self-gratification becomes the commanding force behind the play.
Much credit for this achievement must go to Roseanna Frascona, the actress playing Helena. Although small in stature, her performance controls the stage, as she manages to switch from fragile vulnerability to cunning flirtatiousness with apparent ease. As we witness her genuine grief at her unrequited love, we begin not only to understand the reasons for her lies, but also to support and enjoy them.

There are strong performances elsewhere in the cast. Samantha Losey is wonderfully eloquent and astute as the Countess of Roussillon, revelling in the power her position of authority over Helena affords her. The moments of dialogue between these equally dominant and scheming is particularly sharp and incisive. James Kingston, as the King of Paris, is marvellously resigned and retrospect, as he appears to live not in the present, but in his wealth of memories.

Directing All's Well That Ends Well was always going to be an ambitious task but Rafaella Marcus does a superb job. She manages to capture deftly both the tension and the humour that underlies Shakespeare's text. The setting of the President's Garden at Magdalen promises to provide an elegant and extravagant backdrop for a play that so often aims at courtly romance, before deflating any sense of grandeur through its web of lies and deception.

Perhaps, the play has not always received the popularity and acclaim that it deserves but this production is a perfect opportunity for Oxford students to recognise one of the hidden gems lurking within Shakespeare's cannon. We can only hope that the President of Magdalen is not quite as conniving and duplicitous as the characters that will come to occupy his garden next week.

four stars out of five