Sunday, May 24, 2015

The parameters of 'Trojan Kanthawo'

I have not read Trojan Women but have "read" Euripides enough to understand that his work bears relevance to whatever time and place. This is not new. Plays often go beyond time-bound contexts. Their message forces itself on our time.

It is not only the foresight of the writer but also the timelessness of the issues and themes portrayed that make any work of art transcend time-and-space boundaries. "Timelessness" they say is largely a bourgeois construct, but no other word will do. For now.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Trojan Kanthawo will be staged on June 7 and 18 at Lionel Wendt. It was staged last year and has been staged ever since 2000. There are two things about it that stand out. Firstly, it is not a translation per se. While there is a literal translation in language, the costumes, sets, and even setting have not changed. Bandaranayake's Trojan women reside and remain in Greece. They live as wives and suffer as widows. As with the original.

Secondly, while the play is largely rooted in Greece, its themes have gone beyond national boundary and hence force the viewer to confront them. They also force comparison with the audience's own setting. This demarcates the play from, say, most Shakespeare adaptations staged here. I am not an expert on the Sinhala stage (or English, for that matter), but my guess is that plays which have "stuck to" the original in spirit have only rarely rooted their themes in our settings. In this sense Bandaranayake's play certainly has stood out. It is and has always remained popular.

Anoja Weerasinghe, who plays Hecuba, talked to me about it last week. She mentioned that while the play has out of tradition and demand been staged every year, it has gained a special significance this time around. It is because of Anoja herself. More aptly, it is because of what she represents. Trojan Women will be staged to raise funds for the Abina Academy of Performing Arts. That is Anoja's project. Has been since 1990.

Abina isn't really Anoja nor vice-versa because she doesn't want it that way. Whenever she speaks about her project she's careful not to indicate anything personal. One can argue to the contrary and infer that the two are one and the same. For her, however, no work done for Abina accrues personal benefit. It is from this angle that her efforts at finding sponsors for a theatre there must be looked at.

"I have tried to fund this project because we have no proper acting schools in this country. We conduct classes for everyone. We've trained ex-LTTE and ex-army combatants. We've taken in and nurtured talent. What we now need is a place where talent can be unveiled, as it is. This is why we're trying hard to build an open air theatre here. It's needed and not just because it's a personal project on my part."

Anoja talks about the play with unmistakable nostalgia. Hecuba's character, she explains, is old. She says that as the years pass she gains credence whenever she plays her. On the other hand one can argue that that zest injected into her character has stayed and won't pass. One can also argue that all the politics associated with her and the entire play have remained. She reflects this when telling me that the Greece Euripides envisioned can be compared to Sri Lanka today.

Bandaranayake's play is ambitious, moreover. It contains 60 characters, which explains why a wholesale world tour isn't possible. It has virtually no action, in part because it is more reflective than Euripides' other plays. It is a meditation on how everyone loses and wins nothing in wars. The widows of his play, Hecuba included, have not gained anything.

These women are the lamenting mothers seen in any conflict. They come and are seen everywhere. They are the grieving mothers and widows of both sides of any war. That is why the play retains significance: because it touches on womanhood, which is injured and fractured wherever war crops up. Perhaps this is what she means when she tells me that "wars win us nothing."

Trojan Women delves into a Greece of many, many years ago. That does not diminish its relevance today. Indeed, given recent events one can conclude that its relevance will always stay. It retains an extra edge this year on account of how it will be used to help another commendable effort: that of Anoja and of course Abina. The two go together. Despite what she can or will say to the contrary.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 24 2015