Sahibs & subalterns; Raj "Ends Well?"

Races, genders, caste & creeds clash On the Beach in Shakespearean "problem play"

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Most sympathetic among the Brits is the Countess (Lucia Frangione), doting mother-in-law to Helen and crestfallen mother of Bertram. Costume designer Carmen Alatorre tricks her out in matronly taffeta skirt suits of identical HMS Dreadnought cut, but shifting, scene-to-scene, from white to beige to black as her mood darkens. Pinioned between her conflicting loyalties, she ekes out occasional tears despite her innate stiff-upper-lip reserve.

Nothing stiff about the stand-out English character in the play, the opportunistic braggart Parolles. Jeff Gladstone plays him with rubber-faced flair and loose-limbed panache. Like his British compatriots, he’s a stock type of Raj lore, straight out of Kipling. But Parolles is no standoffish Sahib; more of a scruffy freebooter on the low-life Man Who Would be King model.

Stand-outs on the Indian side are Helen’s two Frontier confederates in her plot to dupe Bertram at last into his conjugal bed and back into Viceregal favour. Veenesh Dubois, as the widow hostess of Helen’s pilgrimage ashram, plays her scenes entirely in Hindi, which lends a tartly murmurous piquancy to her lines.

Her dialogue, as near as I could make out, was a fairly literal translation of Shakespeare’s text, but I wonder how much I would have followed without having read the script in advance and lived in India for awhile. On the other hand, a lot could be figured out from her eloquent facial expressions and body language. Then, too, both Helen and the widow’s own daughter, Diana (Pam Patel) respond to her mostly in English, which keeps things in context.

Patel, a multi-talented actress/musician/dancer from Ontario, turns in a tour de force performance as Bertram’s out-station dalliance. Playing along with a wifely stratagem, she humours the Count’s bumbling advances, only to effect a cover-of-darkness 11th hour swap to get Helen bedded and impregnated at last. It’s a joy to watch Diana's instantaneous switch from coy seduction to quintessentially South Asian imprecation as soon as Bertram’s oblivious back is turned. Patel almost steals the show.

But not quite. Attention remains firmly fixed on Parmar’s Helen. In just a couple of acts (about 100 minutes, total), we watch her  grow from a giggly, love-struck schoolgirl, to a life-on-the-line Ayurvedic healer, to a newlywed scorned, to an exile in her own home, to a go-it-alone pilgrim in mufti, to the mastermind of her own redemption.

Parmar (who last graced the Vancouver stages as the adaptor of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard for the Arts Club) navigates all these transitions with quiet authority. What’s hardest to fathom is why she’d fall for such a twit as Bertram in the first place and remain so steadfast in her pursuit of him.

But, in the process, Helen gets progressively Indianized, evolving from a privileged “native” pet of the Cantonment to a strongly independent woman of “woke” agency. Which jibes with the gathering drumbeat of Indian independence as the subcontinent hurtles towards its Tryst with Destiny and the agony of Partition.

Even as Shakespeare ties up loose storyline strands for an obligatorily pat happy ending, we watch the dancers – so recently in exuberant ensemble – now turn on each other in sectarian, internecine riot. The Brits scurry off with their suitcases; the South Asians mime refugee flows and counter-flows.

Blithely intoning “All yet seems well: and if it end so meet/The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet,” the Viceroy snaps a final salute. To which his Sikh subalterns reply by casting down their ceremonial swords before him with a sputter of spittle.

They then withdraw, stage left, offering their pistols to Diana and the widow. Bertram, valise in hand, withdraws stage right, proffering a hand to Helen. And she remains fixed, stage centre,frozen between the two options.

How’s that for a “problem play?”

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