All’s Well That Ends Well is one of four offerings from this year’s Bard on the Beach, but this production has a brand new perspective.
With a fresh staging that aims to shine a different spotlight onto this Shakespearian text, the performance will run from June 26 to Aug. 11.
A collaborative piece
While the original version of the play is set in France, this production of All’s Well transports the story to mid-20th century India, with the final days of British colonial rule on the subcontinent providing a backdrop to the action that unfolds on stage. Since All’s Well is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Rohit Chokhani, co-creator and co-director, says placing the story in this time period is a continuation of that idea.
“We are taking this text and placing it during a time that I would consider a ‘problematic’ time in India,” says Chokhani, “so we’re not just talking about problems in the text, we’re talking about problems that are also out in the real world. I don’t think we’re approaching this as a way to provide answers, but rather to raise questions.”
The origins of this creation go back a few years, when Chokhani was an apprentice director under Johnna Wright for The Merry Wives of Windsor at Bard on the Beach 2016. Soon after that show finished, the two of them began to make plans for a future production.
“We got along collaboratively, and we wanted to work together in a way that makes Shakespeare accessible to different communities, while remaining relevant to our existing audience,” says Chokhani.
Chokhani, who grew up in Mumbai, wanted to merge Shakespeare with South Asian culture, and Wright was game to help bring that goal to life. Wright has worked with Shakespeare for a long time – she was one of the co-founders of Bard on the Beach in 1989 – but she sees this production as unique even for her.
“With Shakespeare, you need to make it accessible and relevant and illuminate what’s in it,” she says. “As a person that’s been exposed to the mainstream North American approach to Shakespeare, this is very fresh and gives it a new dimension.”
This production is also personally unique for Wright because she has never co-directed before. Having Chokhani as the fellow lead on the project was essential, as despite all her own experiences and expertise, Wright knew she could never create a show that is authentic or culturally appropriate enough on her own.
“I educated myself as much as I could,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter how much studying I do, I can’t have the same knowledge myself compared to someone who has spent a lifetime in that culture.”
A whole new world
While the show has a fresh setting, it does not completely stray from the original text. Some of the text and characters have been cut, and some dialogue has been translated into Hindi and Punjabi, but much of the language has been left unchanged. Chokhani hopes this combination of different styles of presenting Shakespeare will augment the performance.
“There’s a Shakespeare I see in the Western world, and a Shakespeare I see in the Asian world,” he says. “I hope this brings [another] world to it.”
Dialogue remaining unchanged doesn’t mean that this story is a carbon copy of the All’s Well that came before it. In the original, the protagonist Helena’s journey is one fully focused on winning the love of an aristocrat named Bertram. Wright and Chokhani don’t want to spoil the events that take place in this production, but they say the experience of their Helena becomes just as much about her own identity as it is about Bertram.
“The story for Helena becomes a journey of identity for her,” says Wright. “By the end of the play she is a very different person, and her sense of her own culture has changed. In the original, she gets him back by following his demands and impressing him. In ours, she doesn’t win by following the rules.”
The show explores themes of race, culture, class and privilege between different characters, using its setting as a way to engage and relate with a more diverse audience.
“India’s independence might have happened in the 1940s, but it’s still relevant today,” says Chokhani. “People who were affected by this event live in Canada, so that trauma still affects us as a community, and although not every Canadian might have a connection to this, there are other examples of colonization that are very relevant here.”
There might be a finite number of Shakespeare plays, but Wright sees this production as proof that you can never put a cap on the ways they can be brought to life.
“Theatre is always new,” she says. “There’s never one way to do any play. You might think you know the play, but you never know what you’re going to get, what world you’re going to be entering.”
For more information, visit www.bardonthebeach.org