Why is All's Well that Ends Well so rarely performed? Is it because the tests of loyalty are more refined in The Merchant of Venice, the French bashing more boisterous in Henry V, the gulling of a fool more delicious in Twelfth Night, the flight back to court more exhilarating in The Winters Tale, the demise of the King more heart breaking in Lear, the love more daring in Romeo and Juliet, the foolery more malcontent in As You Like It, the banter crisper in Much Ado or the farce better paced in The Comedy of Errors?
Or is it just that our modern sensibility finds it difficult to imagine that Helena could remain in love with bad boy Bertram despite the dastardly way he treats her.
Tonight at the National I saw the play reclaimed both as a wonderful modern fairy story and a Shakespearean classic as complex, dense and tender as any of his other comedies.
Marianne Elliot has directed a gem of a show drawing on archetypes from the European tradition of fairy tales both in Rae Smith's brilliant design and through the clever and consistent characterisation of the key players.
The play is packed with exquisite performances. There is particularly rich work from Michelle Terry as love lorn Cinderella -esque Helena. She is bright as a button, unswervingly assured that the intensity of her passion will be requited; her duelling wit only unmasked by uncomfortable shame in the face of rejection. George Rainsford makes a fine countering Bertram, unaware and unwilling to consider the damage he has done blaming all, not unreasonably, on youth. We're made aware that this handsome Prince isn't ready for commitment from the first moment where he hysterically shadow fences invisible dragons with a wooden sword.
Beyond these battles, Conleth Hill provides excellent comic relief as the posturing Parolles and both Oliver Ford Davies and Clare Higgins are unforgettably powerful as the King of France and the Countess of Rossillion respectively. Imposing figures of benign authority, upholders of the traditionalist's true belief that marriage is the only way to achieve a happy ending.
This is a production that demonstrates that All's Well, as a Shakespeare sampler and an exemplary study of redemption through maturity, works brilliantly for beginners and connoisseurs alike. I left the theatre feeling that for too long directors, unsure of its true brilliance and nervous of its anti-heroism, have let it fall between the gap.