This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
All’s Well that Ends Well, Arpana, dir. Sunil Shanbag, 25 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Sarah Olive, University of York
I came to this performance of All’s Well fresh (or stale?) from marking my undergraduate students’ papers on this play. Predictably, the issue that had occupied them the most was whether Helena is a proto-feminist champion and/or a woman with terrible taste, and a possibly worse personality. It was through this dilemma that I viewed the production. I felt rather jealous of the rest of the crowd who had come presumably for pleasure, mostly in family groups, and were predominantly Guajarati speakers.
The performance began with the entire cast, brightly costumed in the dress of 1900s Gujarat, lining up to sing. Fittingly, given the extreme heat on the South Bank, we were not in France but in Western India, and later, not in Italy but Burma. Accordingly, Helena became Heli, Bertam Bharatram, the Countess Kunti, Lafew Laffabhai, Parolles Parbat, Diana Alkini. In place of the King of France, there was an uncle, Gokuldas, a trader who has become ‘royalty’ in the merchant world; instead of wars, the cut and thrust of the opium trade; for a fistula, there was tuberculosis. These changes were not merely conceptual – a Guajarati speak sitting next to me helpfully informed me that the name changes allowed plentiful occasions for rhyming in the script, with the rhymed words often generating ironic humour.
The main plot was realised relatively ‘straightly’ throughout this production i.e. the order and content of the scenes were broadly recognisable. We were introduced to Kunti, her son and her ward, Heli declared her love to an impervious Bharatram before he left to work in his uncle’s business accompanied by Parbat – his work ethic, if it ever existent, soon fell prey to the temptations of the big city (Bombay). Heli followed and worked her cure – a (somewhat disappointingly unspectacular) fistful of pills – on Gokuldas, despite the latter warning her of the dire consequences failure would have. In return, Gokuldas agreed to offer her Bharatram in marriage, and the reluctant groom was made to place a garland over his bride. He immediately sent Heli back to Kunti and travelled to Burma with Pardat, where they were quickly captivated by Aliki’s beauty, dancing and wealth (something Heli lacked which clearly chafed Bharatram), denoted by her gold mask, hair ornaments and long, thick gold necklace. However, unbeknown to these ‘bad lads’, Heli has responded to news of Bharatram’s desertion, and his dictat that he will only return to her if she can produce his ring and his child – seemingly impossible feats given the distance between them, by following him to Burma and befriending Aliki. The women swap places in Aliki’s bedchamber so that Bharatram sleeps with Heli – a scene subtly achieved with extinguished lanterns, veils and a pinch of the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. News that Heli is dead sent a guilt-ridden Bharatram racing back to his mother – where he incurred both her and Gokuldas’ wrath for his treatment of the bride they adore – only to discover that not only is Heli alive and well, but she has fulfilled the conditions he set. The pair were finally united with a brisk hug: the production gave no sense that Heli has seen past the prize that is Bharatram to imagine what life with him will be like in the long run, nor that Bharatram loves Heli. The tenor was more that he has now ‘grown up’ and finally accepted his duty to his mother, uncle and wife. The cast once again lined up chanting ‘All’s well that ends well’ to the music.
What was markedly different and regional about this performance was the way in which song, dance and gesture punctuated the action, often used not as decoration but centrally and effectively, to do much of the storytelling work. I experienced this intertwining as a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions: there were elements which I made sense of through my (somewhat eclectic) knowledge of Bollywood, Anglo-/Indian film and literature (East is East, Bend it like Beckham, Brick Lane, and A Suitable Boy all came to mind as I watched and listened) and traditional Thai dance: their look, sound, themes of marriage and dis/obedience. For those in the audience with an Indian background, a (largely gentle) collision of East meets West may have been evoked by jokes about English doctors, the interference of the British colonisers in opium trafficking, and the way Bharatram’s outfit became increasingly and symbolically anglicised (acquiring a tie, waistcoat, suit jacket, watch chain, and replacing slippers with shoes) as he neglected his duty to his family. A certain pride seemed to be taken by those in the know in viewing familiar Gujarati traditions in a defamiliarising setting – that elements of the songs, movement and rituals such as the wedding (including the bridal outfit) were being judged (favourably) for their authenticity by the audience was evident from the ooohs, ahhhs, gasps and applause.
The production’s decision to locate the play within a world of trade, rather than war, powerfully brought home to me the extent to which All’s Well is a play about cost and value – particularly of love – in which almost every character is objectionably implicated. Heli told Kunti she was willing to accept any punishment as the price for loving Bharatram and Golkudas that she was prepared to bear the cost if her cure failed; Golkudas bemoaned that his money cannot buy his health. Furthermore, he willingly trades Bharatram for the cure Heli had delivered (therein his uncle objectifies him just as much as his would-be bride). Yet, Bharatram also barters with Heli over the price of his faithfulness to her (a ring, a child). As an audience (and as students of the play) we seem inclined to make value judgments as to which characters deserve what and whom and whether Heli/Helena’s efforts have been ‘worth it’. Ultimately, the realisation of the play’s fit with late capitalist concerns reinforced my feeling that All’s Well deserves yet more stagings, especially ones as intelligent as this.
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