Yes! This is the Bard on the Beach production I’ve been waiting for. This is the one to see.
All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely produced — and there are good reasons for that — but co-directors Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani have set the story in India in 1947, in the last days of the British Raj, and that choice unleashes myriad pleasures. It’s exciting to see more of Vancouver represented onstage and in the audience, thrilling to hear Hindi spoken in a Bard production, a joy to be introduced to so much previously unfamiliar talent, and a treat to revel in the aesthetic exuberance of the spectacle — including the glittering fabrics and infectious dancing.
The story itself is considerably more iffy. The orphaned Helena is in the care of the Countess and in love with the Countess’s son Bertram. But Bertram is a dick. When Helena cures the Viceroy of a life-threatening condition, the Viceroy says Bertram must marry Helena — but the young officer does so only under threat. Because he doesn’t want his aristocratic status to be tarnished by association with someone lower born, he refuses to consummate the marriage and heads off to a military conflict in the north. While he’s there, Bertram attempts to seduce Diana, a young village woman renowned for her chastity. The fact that Bertram is white and both Helena and Diana are South Asian in this production adds a level of racism to Bertram’s class fetish.
Still, Helena persists. In a letter, Bertram tells her that he will only be her true husband when she’s wearing his family ring and carrying his baby. Bertram thinks that means never but we are savvy theatregoers, so we know how things will turn out.
But why does Helena persist? Bertram is such a petulant, unrepentant asshole. This production does nothing to contextualize his behaviour or justify Helena’s attraction to him. The script indicates that Bertram has been led astray by his sidekick, Parolles, a soldier who pretends to courage that he doesn’t possess but, in this mounting, there’s no indication that Bertram might be entrapped in a performance of masculinity. We do see one brief flash of his lust for Helena, but that’s hardly redeeming. And, as played by Edmund Stapleton, Bertram is not the least bit charismatic.
Despite this extremely unpromising bottom line, this production succeeds.
Sarena Parmar, who’s playing Helena, deserves a good portion of our thanks for that. Parmar invites us into the character’s complex combination of vulnerability, intelligence, determination and wit. Early on, when she confesses to the Countess “I love your son”, the crack in her voice is enough to break your heart. And Parmar confidently dishes out Helena’s wordplay with Parolles. There’s a persuasive authenticity in Parmar’s characterization — even though the source of Helena’s drive is logically inexplicable.
In the strong ensemble, I was moved by Lucia Frangione’s depth of feeling as the Countess and entertained by Jeff Gladstone’s inventiveness as the clownish Parolles, although I’ve got a hunch that there’s more to the character than we’re seeing here; in a play that’s essentially about honesty, Parolles is the biggest liar — and the only man who consistently champions women and counsels them to avoid abuse. What’s that about?
Although she doesn’t speak any English in the role, Veenesh Dubois charmed me with her warmth and thoughtfulness as the Widow, Diana’s mother. And I delighted in the specificity of the choices that Nadeem Phillip is making as one of the Sikh soldiers — in the fury that character feels when, late in the game, Bertram accuses Diana of being a whore, for instance.
Many of the pleasures — and a lot of the storytelling — in this production are sensual. In Carmen Alatorre’s costume design, Helena starts off fully colonialized — and stylin’ — in a white, square-shouldered blouse and pleated aqua skirt. Then she moves closer to her goal and the subcontinent moves closer to independence until, in the final image, Helena is standing alone in gold jewelry and a sari in a pink of such s saturated hue that it’s almost a sound.
Pam Johnson’s set is pure elegance: pale terracotta archways and misty blue doors.
Poonam Sandhu’s choreography is intoxicating. Just wait for of the dizzying flavours of the wedding, including a stylized swordfight, and for the chorus of sirens who dance Bertram into their snare.
Co-directors Wright and Chokhani and their team just keep offering sensual pleasures: the classical Indian music that plays in Ruby Singh’s sound design as Helena prepares her cure for the Viceroy, the aquamarine wash that floods the back wall in Alan Brodie and Conor Moore’s lighting design when Helena decides to leave the Countess’s court to pursue her love: “Come, night; end, day!/For with the dark, poor thief, I’ll steal away.”
Setting this production on the cusp of the Partition is a bold choice and, with hints of the violence that will follow, a dramatic one. It makes some sense for this play, too: just as India and Pakistan achieve independence at a terrible price, Helena achieves her goal — also, potentially at a terrible price. As the British pack up, it seems inevitable that Helena will pursue her unsupportive new husband to England. That’s not likely to go well. And she hasn’t even begun to think in terms of personal independence.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL By William Shakespeare. Co-directed by Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani. A Bard on the Beach production. In Douglas Campbell Theatre on Sunday, June 30. Continues until August 11.Tickets.
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