In the new Bard on the Beach adaptation of All's Well That Ends Well, co-creators and directors Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani set the drama in the 1940s, leading up to the Partition of India. This version recasts Shakespeare’s Helena (Sarena Parmar) as an orphaned Indian woman who secretly loves Bertram (Edmund Stapleton), the son of the English countess (Lucia Frangione) who took her in after her father's death. After saving the life of the British Viceroy of India (Bernard Cuffling), Helena wins the right to choose her own husband. When she picks Bertram, he rejects her for being a commoner and leaves town, setting in motion Helena’s nearly impossible plan to get him back. In the drama that ensues, Pam Patel dazzles as Diana, the young woman who joins in on Helena’s plot by seducing Bertram for her. Meanwhile, Jeff Gladstone gives life to the play’s comic scenes with his spirited rendition of Parolles, Bertram’s ostentatious friend and fellow soldier.
All's Well That Ends Well
Co-created and co-directed by Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani
June 26 to August 11, 2019
Bard on the Beach – Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre, Vancouver, BC
Despite the adaptation to pre-Partition India, the play’s setting has been significantly fictionalized, as the program's directors’ notes point out. This may be a necessary concession for this production, which, for the sake of moving the story along, requires us to mostly pass over the race politics of an Indian woman marrying into an English title and aristocratic family line. Yet the Countess’s unconditional acceptance of Helena into her family, the Viceroy’s support for the marriage, and the premise that Bertram primarily objects to Helena’s class background rather than her race all require such a major suspension of disbelief that it renders the colonial Indian setting merely decorative in function.
We might well ask, then, why stage the play at the charged historical moment of Partition? Like Bertram's mother, who welcomes the prospect of an Indian woman becoming the next countess, this kind of racialized adaptation plays out a fantasy of acceptance. In other words, the production's success hinges on its ability to perform cultural authenticity to the satisfaction of (still mostly white) mainstream theatre audiences. If it succeeds, the logic goes, these audiences might be persuaded to accept and even embrace South Asian creators into the fold of Canadian theatre. I am reminded overwhelmingly of Helena, who pursues Bertram against all logic, even when he rejects her out of hand.
The result is a notable attention to detail in the cultural flavour of the setting. Meticulously designed sets by Pam Johnson and Kimira Bhikum take audiences from afternoon tea at an English colonial home to a bustling rural Punjab marketplace. These varied settings are the backdrop for a series of dance sequences elegantly choreographed by Poonam Sandhu, with sound design by Ruby Singh. In one memorable scene, the usual Shakespearean bed trick takes place in a wagon draped with sarees, rolled offstage knowingly by a group of village women. The stagecraft is impressive but raises a few questions. Are suitably “authentic” exotic costumes and dance the cost of entry for putting on a production with a largely South Asian cast, set in South Asia, on a mainstream Canadian stage today? Or are these simply the limits of our imagination?
These questions are worth considering amidst the pitfalls of tokenizing representation. When the historical context of Partition becomes significant to the plot, it is too little, too late to prevent the play’s minor characters from becoming stand-ins for their respective ethnic communities. Late in the final act, a tranquil village scene is interrupted by a radio broadcast about the end of British rule and suddenly devolves into rioting. When a few background characters take up protest signs and shout “Jai Hind!”, others respond with angry cries of “Pakistan Zindabad!”; these are, unless I am mistaken, the only lines ever spoken by the Muslim characters in the play.
The production comes close to recognizing this problem in its decision to revise the play’s ending. In Shakespeare’s version, Bertram and Helena are reunited when he eventually accepts her, recognizing the lengths to which she has gone to win him back. This adaptation amends the source text by adding one final scene. As the British prepare to leave India at last and the other characters are scattered to all sides by Partition, Helena stands alone at centre stage, deciding who to join. The play closes with her choice still up in the air, signaling Helena's personal growth and newfound allegiances to her own people. Bertram and his family may have accepted her, but she no longer needs their approval.
This is an original and compelling move whose force is entirely undermined by the play's reluctance to address its own race politics up until that point. Still, the failure might prove to be instructive by revealing the fantasy that animates this concluding scene: finally being welcomed into the family and having the freedom to refuse them in turn. In naming that desire, we might yet move past it. What have we to lose in breaking from the script?