When Bharatram (Bertram) flees his native Gujarat for Bombay, his mother’s ward Heli (Helena), desperately in love, decides to pursue him. But Bharatram feels differently, and attaches two obstructive conditions to their marriage – conditions he is sure will never be met. 20th-century India stands in for Renaissance France in Arpana’s joyful, imaginative production of a play that reverses all the usual expectations of Shakespearean comedy.
Communications Assistant Cordelia Morrisson met with Arpana’s director, Sunil Shanbag, to see how he and his company interpreted All’s Well That Ends Well.
Sunil Shanbag directed his theatre company Arpana in All’s Well That Ends Well on its first venture to Shakespeare’s Globe for the Globe to Globe festival in 2012. Although no stranger to unique performance spaces, the production was not only Sunil’s first on the Globe Stage, but also his first in Gujarati – and, for the Arpana company, their first in Britain. Brimming with music, songs and folklore, Sunil has taken inspiration and influence from the popular Bhangwadi theatre style and set the production in 1900’s India. Cordelia Morrison interviewed Sunil about the challenges of translating and creating Shakespeare’s comedy in this format, and how one handles the play’s ethical difficulties in the shadows of this light-hearted theatrical style.
Cordelia: All’s Well That Ends Well is often seen as one of the more ‘problematic’ of Shakespeare’s comedies, given its plotline. What problems did you and Mihir Bhuta (scriptwriter) encounter when adapting the play and how did you approach them?
Sunil: The challenge was to make the play accessible to our audiences, while retaining the original, Shakespearean, spirit. An adaptation set in the history of the Gujarati mercantile community in the 1900s appealed to us because it was full of resonances for Indian audiences, and also, in a sense, allowed us to reflect on our colonial history. Mihir understood this perfectly and its quite amazing how he has been able to achieve all this using the energy of the original text. We brought a contemporary gaze to the text as well, especially to the portrayal of its women, and to the relationship between the two main characters. Finally, by playing it in the Bhangwadi style, a popular theatrical form of that period, we made it stylistically truthful as well. But through this entire process we were careful to retain the philosophical reflection and lyricism of the original. It felt good when a British theatre critic exclaimed in his review, “Shakespeare’s problem play solved!”
As mentioned, All’s Well previously played here to great success – have you developed the production in any way since its last performance here and to what means?
Not much – the production retains its major elements.
There are references in past reviews to Bharatram (Bertram) becoming ‘more westernised’ as he moves further away from home. Was the subject of British-Indian relations something you were keen to explore?
Well, an adaptation set in 1900 in and around the great port city of Bombay, as it was known then, cannot ignore the dramatic transformations taking place due to the impact of colonial rule. The temptations were great, but it was not right to load the original text with our interest in the social politics of the time. So we looked for opportunities to suggest this transformation, and our costume designer, Maxima Basu was able to incorporate this idea in the physical transformation of the two male characters, Bertram and Parole.
Shakespeare’s plays frequently employ the use of song or music, however this is one which actually seldom references music. How do you intend the Bhangwadi theatre elements applied to this production to enhance the play and its themes?
I had originally suggested using Nautanki as a form to Tom Bird, the festival director, because I have always felt that a Shakespearean comedy would work very well with a musical score in an irreverent folk style. He loved the idea after seeing bits of my earlier production, Stories in a Song. But later he asked me to do the play in Gujarati, so I turned to Bhangwadi, an urban musical style very popular with Gujarati audiences in the 1900s. I believe that in many ways it is the musical score that makes the play truly our own. At a simple level the inner dimension of Shakespeare’s characters conveyed through soliloquies are even more eloquent in song, and at a more sub-conscious level, music adds an emotional depth to the text and communicates much more intimately with our audiences.
The plotline of All’s Well plays like a fairy tale or fable in some aspects. To your knowledge, does this reflect or have similarities to any classic Indian tales or folklore?
Shakespeare’s plays generally work very well with Indian audiences because they are full of drama and emotion, In this play particularly, the relationship between Bertram and Helena, which seems such a “problem” in the west, is perfectly understandable to Indian audiences.
Did you have any particular agenda in presenting that tricky relationship between Bharatram (Bertram) and Heli (Helena) in 20th Century India to a modern British audience – particularly one where feminism is an increasingly prominent conversation?
I think there is an inherent problem in worrying about the political correctness of a relationship set in another time and social context. It’s unfair to judge it by contemporary morality, or concerns. But what is possible, and indeed insightful, is to bring to it a contemporary gaze. We had an advantage in that we were adapting the text, and were able to play around with emphasis, empathy, and meaning. Making the women more confident, more assertive, both in our interpretation, and in our playing was one way of tackling the issue.
Arpana has performed a variety of different shows and in a variety of unconventional performance venues. How does a Shakespearean adaptation at the Globe Theatre compare to these?
Nothing quite prepares you for the performance experience at the Globe. The space embraces you, physically and spiritually, and not because it is dedicated to Shakespeare, but because it is truly dedicated to our kind of theatre. Audiences are also touched by this spirit, and come to every performance with generosity. Which is why it’s very hard to fail at the Globe. Our production is rich in language, and nuance, so we were apprehensive about a non-Gujarati speaking audience comprehending the play. But we were quite overwhelmed by the warm reception. So, we’re looking forward to a re-run of that experience.
By Cordelia Morrison
This interview first appeared in Around the Globe magazine and the 2014 Globe to Globe Programme. Both are available to purchase at the Globe.