According to Professor Jonathan Bate, “All’s Well that Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s least performed and least loved comedies.” This “problem” comedy has often been linked with three other plays that Shakespeare wrote in the early 1600s at the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s and the beginning of James I’s reigns; Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Measure for Measure, since all three share a darker vision of human nature. Since 1916, when the first production, directed by F.R. Benson, the play has been performed only eleven times in Stratford-upon-Avon. The latest production, directed by Nancy Meckler, opened on 25th July to excellent reviews.
Recent revivals at Stratford have provided a vehicle for well-known actresses to return to Stratford, to play the sympathetic role of the Countess of Rosillion, a part which George Bernard Shaw called “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written”. In 1981, it was the turn of Dame Peggy Ashcroft to play the role to great acclaim towards the end of her career. In 2003, Gregory Doran cast Dame Judi Dench in the role in his production at the Swan theatre, her first appearance at Stratford in twenty-five years, and attracted by the character of the Countess, which Doran describes as “the still centre of the play”.
The production was very well received, as was Stephen Brimson Lewis’ “spare, effective, design of wintry trees etched on sheets of silvery, scoured glass.” (Paul Taylor, Independent, 15/12/2013) and Deidre Clancy’s costumes, reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth century paintings. Gregory Doran’s noted how Judi Dench conveyed the full range of the Countess’ emotions; her rage, her sense of fun in her relationship with Lavatch, her sense of loss when her son Bertram goes to Court, and not least how “She found expression even in the silences of the Countess”. Now it is the turn of Charlotte Cornwell to play this role; another actress who returns to the RSC after first performing with the company in the late seventies and early eighties.