Helena%20and%20the%20King1 (Large)All’s well that ends well.   The end justifies the means.  That seems to be the theme of Shakespeare’s clever, well observed but lesser known work; more of a gothic fairy story than a play.   

The plot is complex and dark, full of hidden dangers and motives, like the hooting and howling woods that surround the castle. Helena, as she tells us herself, is a simple maid, an orphan – the daughter of a physician.  She works for the recently bereaved Countess of Roussilion, a strong, determined woman, and is infatuated by her handsome young son, Bertram.  But Bertram is one of the lads; he enjoys nothing more carousing with his mates, especially the deviously camp, Parolles, and playing games of war and love.  Indeed, as Parolles explains to Helena, the game of love as more like a siege on a maid’s virginity.  The Countess despairs of her son and is delighted when she learns that Helena has designs on him.   

Helena conceives a plan.  She will use her knowledge of herbs to cure the King of his fistula-in-ano and ask him to grant her the hand of Bertram in return.  This she does. Bertram has to marry her on order of the King.  Entrapped and resentful, he departs for the wars in Florence without consummating the marriage, but not before he has left Helena a note to say that he cannot accept his marriage until she wears his ring and  bears  his child. 

In Florence, he meets Diana, a pretty girl of a good family and sets out to seduce her.  But Helena has, unknown to Bertram, followed her husband to Florence, where she persuades Diana to procure Bertram’s priceless ring in exchange for her maidenhood, then invite him to her bedchamber, blindfold him and change places with her so that she can consummate the marriage, thus fulfilling Bertram’s impossible conditions.

Bertram, thinking he has successfully besieged Diana,  abandons her for Paris, where the King and the Countess have learnt that Helena has died of a broken heart. They berate Bertram for his cruelty and when they see he is wearing Helena’s ring that was given him by Diana, suspect him of murdering his wife. Diana arrives at court to claim ‘her husband’ and shows them the Bertram’s ring. Then Helena arrives pregnant, receives the ring from Diana, is reunited with her husband,  whose matrimonial conditions have been fufilled and  – all’s well that ends well.  Or is it?  In the glare from the flash bulbs, we see Helena’s and Bertram’s happy smiles collapse into grimaces of horror as they realise what they’ve done.

Helena has been so obsessed with capturing Bertram.  She understands the power and politics of courtship, but has neither the station in life nor the looks to enthral and entrance.  She captures her man through a miliary campaign of  manipulation, coercion and deception.  In so doing, she reveals Bertram as feckless,  irresponsible and weak. They have been exposed; they now have to live together in the full knowledge of the depths of each other’s characters.   


‘All’s well that ends well’  was the second play transmitted live from The National Theatre to selected cinemas around the country.  What a good idea.  The company, directed by Marianne Elliott, was magnificent with star performances by Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davis as The King, Elliot Levey as Lord Dumaine and Clare Higgins as the Countess.  The gothic fairy tale set, with images of hooting owls, howling wolves, Reniger-like shadow puppets and silhouettes was a masterpiece.   But at Harrogate last night, the Odeon was half empty.