The RSC’s contemporary new production of All’s Well That Ends Well aims to look at the play with fresh eyes, and maybe even end the debate over whether there should be a question mark at the end of its title. What’s On chats to Claire Benedict, who plays the part of the Countess of Roussillon... 

All’s Well That Ends Well, the darkly comic tale of a scheming woman’s attempts to secure the love of a disinterested - and largely dislikeable - man, is regularly touted as the most erroneously titled of any Shakespeare play. Sure, there’s a positive resolution, but the fact that lowly Helena finally manages to secure the love (or does she?) of higher-class Bertram is almost a moot point, as audiences are often not entirely sure if, or why, it’s a happy ending. After all, if Bertram’s demonstrably not interested in Helena, why is she so interested in him?

All’s Well might be a romantic fantasy, but its edgy cynicism and mixture of toxic masculinity, gender role reversal and consent is not to everyone’s taste - a fact which may well have contributed to it being one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.  

The RSC’s latest, contemporary production, presented in an era of #metoo and female empowerment, aims to shed new light on all of the above, according to director Blanche McIntyre.

Blanche views the play as “Shakespeare’s most modern comedy”, pointing out that “its story of sexual politics, class prejudice and generation gaps would always have felt contemporary”.

Better yet, she believes “the fantasy relationships and fake identities in the play make it a perfect match for our anxious, idealistic, lonely, social-media-addicted age”.

All of which tick the boxes for a modern reading. And the fact that the play contains a couple of supremely strong female characters in Helena and the Countess of Roussillon - the mother of Bertram, who adopts the orphan girl - helps to counter the accusations of misogyny.

Claire Benedict, who plays the Countess, admits she wrestles with Helena’s motives, but has a positive slant to put on why the confident young woman even bothers with a man who isn’t interested in her.
“She does go to extremes, but digging through it, I feel it’s her way of showing people her power, and that if you want something badly enough, you can get it.

“And she does get her man at the end of the day - but whether there is true love, or how that love will manifest itself, is another matter. The fact that she’s got her man… does that mean that she actually has his love? I don’t know - it's funny why we want to be partnered with people, isn’t it?”

That heart-wrenching conundrum also means the play won’t quite manage to be the ‘light comedy’ that would provide a perfect contrast with the RSC’s other summer production, Richard III. The dark history play, also showing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until early October, features Claire in the role of the Duchess of York.

“Richard has been a mammoth task - it’s an extraordinary play. The Duchess isn’t a huge part, but at the end you could wring me out because it’s so emotionally draining. And All’s Well is going to be pretty much the same!”
On the plus side, Claire, who first performed at the RSC 30 years ago, is loving the female-empowerment angle of Blanche McIntyre’s production and direction (“I’ve never worked with her before, but my God I’d like to again”). And despite suggestions that the social-standing element of the play is out of step with modern society, she views All’s Well as another example of Shakespeare writing about the human condition.

“It does feel historical, but my own feeling about life is that there is no past - we live in an ever-present. Things keep recurring and situations are the same, we just dress differently and maybe speak a little differently. But we’re constantly going through the same experiences as our forefathers.

“It’s also a very modern production, and I’m very excited about that, as it means we can try and make Shakespeare even more accessible in terms of our audience and our younger audience.”

The play also features some of the Bard’s strongest female characters, with Claire’s role famously described by George Bernard Shaw as the most beautiful old woman's part ever written.

“I have to say he’s absolutely right. I’m 71 this year, and for me to have landed a part like this - I still classify myself as a jobbing actor - I’m absolutely over the moon.”

Is that joy tempered by any pressure about following in the footsteps of the likes of Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench, who have each played the role at the RSC?

“I adore Dame Judi, but I thought ‘Claire, you mustn’t try and copy her!’ But it’ll hopefully be a very different production to what’s gone in the past. Not because we want it to be different for the sake of being different, but we’re drawing on new and exciting ideas and adding different colours to the palette. Including different colours of people, which will be very relevant to our audiences today, or jolly well should be.”

The relationship between the Countess and Helena makes for some of the most moving moments in the play, and their scenes are clearly a highlight for Claire. Not only does she wax lyrical about working with co-star Rosie Sheehy, but her own life experience makes their connection especially poignant.

“I think the Countess is extraordinary, and the scenes with her and Helena are wonderful. I adopted a young girl nine years ago, so whenever I rehearse those scenes with Rosie - who is absolutely amazing, I love her to bits - we don’t have to engineer the tragedy or the pathos or the sadness or the tears, because they’re already there. I suppose what I’m doing, even though I might not know I’m doing it, is drawing on my own personal experience.”

Despite it being an emotional ordeal, Claire is clearly revelling in the role, and hopes the complicated nature of the “wonderful” production will give audiences pause for thought - as well as food for debate.
“I hope people will continue talking about it once they leave the theatre because of all the elements we discussed and the fact that it’s not performed an awful lot.

“I hope younger women will be talking about it - why the devil does she want to be with him? Those questions will be spewing out, I hope. That’s what you want when you’re in theatre - when people leave, that they’re affected to the degree that they want to discuss and debate it afterwards. That’s what theatre’s all about!”

All’s Well That Ends Well shows at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from Tuesday 16 August until Saturday 8 October.

Steve Adams