Judi Dench comes out alone, briefly, at the start of the new Royal Shakespeare Company production of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and a good thing, too: It’s not easy looking anywhere else when Dame Judi is on stage. On this occasion, the collective gaze has been especially keen, since Gregory Doran’s lively, audience-grabbing production marks Dench’s return for the first time in 24 years to Stratford, where the actress has had abundant triumphs in a professional career spanning 46 years.
Just turned 69, Dench has reached the point in a classical actress’s life where the Shakespeare roles are few and far between. (Pretty much all that remains for her is the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.”) But this singular performer always leaves a lasting imprint on a role, allowing her to make up in the quality of her Shakespearean forays what may be lacking in quantity. And as she first emerges as the Countess of Roussillion, richly costumed in robes that seem to sweep her across the stage, Dench elicits a giddy intake of breath. It’s followed by the long, slow, satisfying exhalation as, across three hours, we witness an artist in unflaggingly empathic command of her art. (Following 10 weeks at the Swan, the production transfers mid-February to the Gielgud Theater in London.)
The Countess isn’t a large role: Surrogate mother to her young ward, Helena (Claudie Blakley), the lovesick girl who has fallen hard for the Countess’ actual son, the snobbish Bertram (Jamie Glover), this Shakespearean dowager takes pride of place on the periphery and rivals “The Winter’s Tale’s” Paulina as perhaps the wisest of the Bard’s more mature women. And I doubt she has ever seemed wiser, more quick-witted and more heart-stoppingly alert to the vagaries of the heart than here. With only intermittent opportunities to occupy center-stage, Dench — herself (like her character) a widow — fills the evening with the shimmering glow of a woman who has known love and still has much to give.
What of “All’s Well” itself? It’s just one testament to Dench’s authority that a much-vaunted “problem play” seems to make complete and total sense, for at least as long as the actress is navigating dizzying emotional turns to carry the audience from robust comedy through to a quicksilver melancholy. (“To be young again, if we could,” she remarks, the simple phrase communicating what is so inescapably fleet about life.) Raging against her cold and callow soldier-son, Dench’s Countess gives the play its moral pulse, and when she speaks to Helena of having “felt so many quirks of joy and grief,” rest assured that Dench sees to it that we feel each and every one.
What isn’t always so visible — or, more accurately, comprehensible — is the affection that drives the play: Helena’s amorous somersault that finds the lowly physician’s daughter yearning desperately for the embrace of a man, Bertram, who regards her more or less with disgust. In a sense, the emotional state of this “simple maid” is one of those Bardic sensibilities that must be taken on faith, much like the jealousy that suddenly grips Leontes at the start of “The Winter’s Tale,” the play “All’s Well” most resembles.
The young twosome are united by play’s end in the sort of summing up that guarantees the accuracy of a title such as “All’s Well,” and the play its place in Shakespeare’s comic canon. But not even the Duke and Isabella in “Measure For Measure” make as unlikely and fearful a match as this couple here, even if the ruse required to consummate their alliance finds echoes of Isabella’s famous “bed-trick” in “Measure.” As Blakley plays the female lead, in a perf that grows considerably as the show progresses, there’s no escaping the element of masochism to a heartsick obsessive who loves totally against reason, her self-flagellating insistence on Bertram more than a little creepy.
Reciprocating the compliment by referring to Helena as “my clog,” Glover is a fetching if stiff Bertram in what must be the least rewarding young lover in all of Shakespeare: a nobleman so ignoble that one is right in there with the King of France (Gary Waldhorn) when he barkingly advises Bertram to “check thy contempt.”
Away from a central pairing whose difficulties lie more in the parts themselves than with these actors (though Blakley could perhaps use a bit more of the natural radiance Helena is said by Lord Lafeu to possess), the play is in good hands, with Guy Henry scoring yet another RSC success as a predictably loquacious Parolles, the braggart with an unexpectedly Malvolio-like talent for self-abasement. The actor strikes rich comic gold in an opening exchange about virginity (among other things, it “breeds mites”), just as Waldhorn’s majestically spoken King moves an audience from grief through drollery and on to much-needed common sense, via his assertion that, to Bertram, “wives are monsters.”
It helps, too, that Doran directs with his usual flair for pace, even if one might prefer less of the “Les Miz”-itis — banner-waving and the like — that can creep into this helmer’s work (see his “Cyrano,” with Antony Sher). Physically, the production unfolds fluently on an translucent Orientalist set from Stephen Brimson Lewis that has been masterfully lit by Paul Pyant in tableaux evoking numerous painters, from Van Dyck to Joseph Wright of Derby. And even when the odd perf falters — Mark Lambert’s Lavache, this play’s resident fool, is a total bore — Dench is never far away, her presence an inescapably enhancing force, as is true of the Countess herself.
Inheriting a role long associated with the late, great Peggy Ashcroft, another premier theatrical Dame, Dench must be among the feistier of dowagers, her fury as real as her warmth. But the actress, typically, is nowhere more transcendent than in a tiny gesture near the end where she turns and extends her outstretched palms, as if in silent blessing on a play concerned with restoration and renewal that finds this performer, and not for the first time, once again reborn.