Bard on the Beach’s All’s Well That Ends Well

The annual Bard on the Beach festival makes the works of William Shakespeare accessible to all audiences, young or old, scholars or amateurs.

Over its 30-year evolution, Bard has taken bold risks in choosing plays, editing scripts, switching genders, mixing venues and even stylistic decisions.

Bard on the Beach’s All’s Well That Ends Well

Until now, they had never staged a play in India nor featured so much authentic cultural content and ideas.

Directed by Rohit Chokhani (founding artistic director of Diwali) and Johnna Wright (literary manager for Persephone Theatre), this season’s All’s Well that Ends Well is transported to the tumultuous India of 1946, right before the end of British colonial rule.

Their aim is to explore the effects of colonization on identity, race, culture and class amidst turbid times and religious turmoil. However, All’s Well has already been deemed a “problem play”, meaning it inherently has its own set of knotty, ethical predicaments that the story never truly resolves.

Bard on the Beach’s All’s Well That Ends Well

The supplementary issues further convolute the plot of this rarely executed play. Some scenes are performed in Hindi although the audience is given summary sheets outlining the content. While this choice adds authenticity to the staging it also takes away from the language of Shakespeare while confusing non-speakers.

The character of the Widow only speaks Hindi (quite the accomplishment for non-speaker Veenesh Dubois) but we do not fully comprehend her condemnation of Parolles nor her motivations for helping Helena. Subtitles may have been a simple solution.

These failings within the production are amply compensated by what it is able to achieve: a cross-cultural fusion that opens the Shakespearean stage to other ethnicities. This rendition is an extravaganza of seductive Bollywood dancing and daring sword fighting, thanks to Ruby Singh (sound designer and composer), Poonam Sandhu (choreographer) and Paneet Singh (cultural consultant). 

Bard on the Beach’s All’s Well That Ends Well

Carmen Alatorre has fashioned a non-stop pageantry of eye-catching costumes, from refined British suits to sweeping Indian saris. Alan Brodie and Conor Moore’s immersive lighting choices define the blistering days and heady nights on the subcontinent.

The adaptive thrust stage conceived by Pam Johnson contrasts muted tones with vibrant colour. The larger backdrop is exotic, allowing for expensive, imperial props to be transplanted into scenes, much like the British occupation itself.

Briefly, the story is about the tenacious pursuit of a lowborn ward to win over a Countess’ unwilling son as a husband. Helena, the cunning, resourceful daughter of a famous Indian physician, cures the illness of the British Viceroy and is granted her choice of husband. She has been secretly in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram, who is an accomplished soldier.

Sarena Parmar, Veenesh Dubois
[Sarena Parmar, Veenesh Dubois]

Although not technically a villain, Bertram is one of Shakespeare’s most disagreeable characters. Not only does he reject Helena because of her class but he refuses to consummate their marriage or acknowledge her as his wife. He prefers instead to return to the action of the battlefield and chase after young virgins, even lower in social status than his wife.

Through her own crafty machinations, Helena manages to dupe the foolish Bertram and all’s well that ends well – or does it? The play ends just as the Radcliffe Line has been drawn, plunging the Punjab and Bengal provinces of British India into anarchy.

Sarena Parmar gives an exquisite performance as a sophisticated, graceful, expressive Helena, full of guile and wit. Unfortunately, her voice sounds strained, lacking the projection and fortitude of seasoned Bard veterans like David Marr.

Even Parmar’s acting chops are unable to reconcile her character’s irrational devotion to a cad like Bertram. There may have been a missed opportunity here for her to play Helena like a true villain and this would have made the absurd storyline more believable.

Edmund Stapleton, Sarena Parmar
[Edmund Stapleton, Sarena Parmar]

After all, Helena uses bribes and trickery to subdue Bertram and had no consideration for the grief she caused when she feigned her own death. She could even be accused of non-consensual sex because Bertram had clearly said no to consummating with her.

Perhaps, after traveling to her homeland, Helena awakens to her true identify because violent social conflict changes people. She is a privileged, educated Indian woman, so why should she be scorned by a pompous British subject?

She may have been infatuated with Bertram but his challenge now only makes her want to conquer him. This depiction would make Helena an Iago-like character, ruthless but fooling everyone about her goodness. Shakespeare had already laid out the foundations of this impure heroine in the opening when she participates in vulgar banter, head-to-head with Parolles and keeps up with him (a skill absent in all of Shakespeare’s other leading ladies).

Nathan Kay, Jeff Gladstone
[Nathan Kay, Jeff Gladstone]

Instead, Parolles remains the minor villain in this play. Where he fails in deception, Helena succeeds. Luckily, Jeff Gladstone is more than up to the task of portraying this boastful, lecherous profligate.

Gladstone is a master of funny, feisty gestures and you can’t help but feel sorry for this harmless fraud. His parts are acted with so much mirth and bluster that I enjoyed his side-story more than the main one. “The Adventures of Parolles, As Told by Parolles” might be an interesting spin-off akin to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Sarena Parmar, Bernard Cuffling
[Sarena Parmar, Bernard Cuffling]

Other notable performances include Pam Patel as a seductive, ravishing and cool-headed Diana. She is glorious to watch, mustering her alluring womanly wiles against Bertram but emerging unscathed and defiant. Lucia Frangione’s portrayal of the stalwart, elegant Countess is full of depth and warmth. Bernard Cuffling maintains a deadpan demeanor as the Viceroy but imbues the character with subtle humour.   

Performed on the Howard Family Stage, Bard on the Beach’s All’s Well that Ends Well features a new twist on an odd play.

The splendor of colour, sound and action will delight perennial theatregoers and newcomers alike. The show only runs until August 11 before it all ends – well or not.

Photos by Tim Matheson.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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