A new production of Counter Offence underlines its relevance nearly 30 years later

Rahul Varma’s play first sparked a conversation about racism, violence against women and the biased justice system back in 1996.

When Rahul Varma’s play Counter Offence premiered in 1996, it sparked a conversation about racism, violence against women and how these things collide with a biased justice system.

Presented by Teesri Duniya Theatre, Counter Offence returns to the stage this month, bringing with it a message that’s just as timely now as it was almost 30 years ago. After all, Quebec saw 14 femicides in 2022, an alarming rise that has carried over into 2023. A report released last month by Tracking (In)Justice Project shows that police-involved deaths are on the rise in Canada, with Black and Indigenous peoples overrepresented. 

“I wish this play could have been declared as irrelevant because the problems no longer existed. Unfortunately, they do,” says Varma, who’s also the Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya Theatre. “The significance of this play, sadly, still is there.” 

The play centres on the relationship between Shazia (Amanda Silveira), a first-generation Quebecer with traditional South Asian Muslim parents, and her husband Shapoor (Arash Ebrahimi) of Iran. The authorities become involved when Shapoor is arrested on domestic violence charges, bringing their prejudices with them, as well as community workers with their judgment clouded by their own agendas and experiences. When fatal tragedy strikes, characters and audience members alike are left wondering where to find the line between right and wrong, truth and intolerance.

“The story is of violence and race. Violence against women must end. Racial profiling must also end. What do we do when the two come into conflict with each other?” Varma explains. 

The events take place under the shadow of the fallout of the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, with then-Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s comment on “the ethnic vote” still reverberating across the province, escalating tensions and leaving marginalized communities with a heightened fear of discrimination. 

Director Murdoch Schon decided to retain the mid-’90s setting of Counter Offence, thus highlighting the persisting similarities in the discourse years later. To do so, they pulled from four different versions of the script, which was revisited in 2020 when COVID stopped the production in its tracks, and again in 2022 before Schon came on.

“Identity politics were fraught in the ’90s, just like they are now,” Schon says. “Has the conversation about justice changed since then? How has it changed? That’s the issue the play is getting at.”

Immigration and the safety or lack of safety it provides to an immigrant are considered in the play, too. Shapoor is dealing with the difficulties of an irregular immigration status — to what extent does the stress of that inform his actions? Irregular border crossing has returned to dominate the Quebec news cycle in recent weeks via Roxham Road, bringing an added layer of real-world pertinence to the story told in Counter Offence

The Teesri Duniya production of Counter Offence is at the Segal Centre March 15–April 2.

“All art imitates life imitates art imitates life,” Schon remarks about the ongoing parallels between the themes of the play and current events. “Artists are trained to reflect on reality through their practice, so it’s par for the course to work with it. But it is hard.”

“I also wanted to make the story more intercultural because our streets are very intercultural,” Varma says. “When stories are told from a very monochromatic and monocultural point of view, they do not become universal.”

The cast hails from around the world, and to facilitate the discussions around the portrayal of the various cultures represented in the piece, the production worked with intercultural dramaturge Eric Holmes. 

“The cast is naturally diverse,” Varma explains. “It’s not because somebody had to tick a box to show those characters. And you’re going to see some actors that usually don’t get to be seen because we don’t write for them.”

“We’ve managed to get eight different people in the room at the same time, which very rarely happens in Canadian theatre,” says Schon. They added that they are thankful for the cast’s willingness to embark on an extensive exploration phase, to find movements to bring further meaning to the text beyond the stage directions.

The Sunday matinee performances of Counter Offence will end with talkback sessions, featuring a panel of experts to talk about the issues of violence against women, racism and discrimination in the justice system.

“It feels like really vital work,” says Schon. “We’re aware of the gravity of it in the room.” ■

Counter Offence is on at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) from March 15 to April 2.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.