Tuesday, June 16, 2015

'Trojan Kanthawo': With or Without Olympus

“The consummation of a great conquest, a thing celebrated in paeans and thanksgivings, the very height of the day-dreams of unregenerate man – it seems to be a great joy, and it is in truth a great misery.” – Gilbert Murray, Introduction to “Trojan Women”

One of the biggest strengths of Trojan Kanthawo is that it strikes at us immediately. The play is set in Troy, yes, but its writer, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, has scripted it in such a way that it forces comparison with the present. I wonder whether a prologue claiming its “timelessness” was really needed given this, but that was all the more reason to enjoy a playwright and text I haven’t seen or studied before. Yes, this was the first time I saw Trojan Kanthawo. No, I haven’t studied Euripides. That however does not disqualify comment.

Trojan Women affirms the futility of war. More significantly, the play focuses on and condemns war by depicting how maternity and womanhood are affected. This is the emotional centre of the play, and after more than 15 years I suspect Bandaranayake has still stuck to it. Commendably.

What is the political centre of the story, however? Is it merely in the ravaging of Troy and the deportation of its widows? Or is it in the politically motivated monologues of its central characters? I was moved (as were the rest of the audience) by Anoja Weerasinghe’s portrayal of the aging Queen Hecuba. Anoja told me how each year she finds her role more relevant. Does that make her monologues all the more pertinent?

Not really. Why? Because the play jars at some points. For me at least.

Let me explain. The main problem I have with Trojan Kanthawo is not its dialogues. One can argue that enough verve has been spent in writing them down. They sometimes totter and more often than not seem to strike at us emotionally too much. But that is not a weakness. That is a strength. It is from those monologues – I was moved particularly by Yasodha Wimaladharma’s speeches in the first half of the play – that one can infer the political subtext of the play.

The problem is in how Bandaranayake, while rooting his play in Troy and making it relevant to Sri Lanka (I was frankly disturbed at the interspersion of Sinhalese soldiers with Greek soldiers), has retained what I personally think is an aberration. This is in how the writer (almost) reduces the entire conflict of the play – between the Greeks and the Trojans – to the quirks of the gods.

Why should this trouble me? In a story that attempts to be “timeless” while at the same time rooting itself in Troy, such a conflict – between gods and mortals – tends to become an add-on. This is not to say that every political interpretation or rather rewrite of a play should weed out divine intervention – Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of the play, after all, gives more focus to Athena than in Euripides’ original.

What troubles me rather is why this should intrude on Bandaranayake’s adaptation at all. It jars. I know that the “quirks of Olympus” play a major part in the story. But why should this factor in a plot that tries to move into our time? The setting is in Troy, granted, and Bandaranayake tries to remind us constantly that what happened there is in a way happening here as well. By (slightly) reducing the conflict of the story to Athena’s and Poseidon’s fury, however, we are lost as to why Euripides remains relevant to our time, and, more importantly, to our setting.

This brings me to another point. The intrusions of Sinhalese soldiers remind us constantly that the women of Troy are symbolically ravaged not just by the Greeks but, in another time, by “our boys” as well. Hecuba’s constant nostalgic yearning for the glory of Troy, now lost in war, is a reminder of how futilely nationalistic the defeated can be as well. But in the use of contemporary soldiers, what exactly is Bandaranayake aiming at? Some in the audience, who may have come expecting a direct political statement, would have readily inferred a comparison between Greece/Troy and Sri Lanka.

I have a problem here too. In a context where neither side won and neither side was free of fault (in a sequence in the play, Hecuba representing Troy and Menelaus representing Greece spurn and condemn Helen of Troy for her romance with Paris), most commentators won’t find it odd to draw comparisons with the civil war in this country. But which side is the aggressor and which side is the passive, innocent party? And how does this bear relevance to the civil war?

I admit I’m too intrusive here. But I persist. Where’s the comparison to be drawn and if so how relevant does it become? Trojan Kanthawo, let’s not forget, was staged 15 years back. That was a time of shelling, suicide bombs, and unilateral action by terrorist and soldier alike. This however doesn’t make it less compelling today.

My only question is this: to which side do the conflicting parties in the play belong in contemporary Sri Lanka? The Trojans are the defeated, certainly. The conquered are its women (which is where the tragedy of the story is rooted in) and the “victors” the Greeks. Are we to then consider that the defeated here were those demarcated as terrorists and the victors those who triumphed over them?

Bandaranayake’s vision is more penetrative than this simplistic comparison, I suspect (and hope). The play after all is about how no one wins in wars. Neither side really emerged as victor in the Trojan War. Deceit won where strategy lost (through the Trojan horse).

In the original text, Euripides reinforced the then commonly held view that the quarrels of Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite began the war (in a sequence in the play, Helen condemns the latter for having chosen her to fall in love with Paris, which Hecuba ridicules, pointing out angrily that her frailty and flesh are to blame).

At the end of the play however, with or without gods, Bandaranayake is successful in depicting that men make wars and lose them. It is human frailty that begins them. It is human frailty that ravages the defeated. The only ones conquered in the play are the widows of Troy. Does this warrant or rather provoke comparison with our setting? Maybe. But how? Bandaranayake chooses not to answer that. Wisely.

At the time of its debut, Trojan Kanthawo certainly stood out for this reason, though one can argue that the political establishment at the time probably would have condoned what Bandaranayake hinted in his play (which makes it all the more relevant now when popular opinion would seem to rebel against it). 

The final sequence, of Hecuba lamenting over the remains of Astyanax (Andromache’s son) is genuinely touching. It is in Astyanax (representing not the women but the children of Troy) that Bandaranayake’s statement is felt most strongly. For this reason, his death rightly remains the emotional centre or pivot of the entire play. All the more reason to condone rather than condemn its message.

I can write more. But I will conclude with a brief overview. For a play that tries to be politically relevant, I felt there were too many songs (the music is composed by Rookantha Gunatilleka). The cast stood out however, in particular Anoja Weerasinghe and Yasodha Wimaladharma, although the minor parts, played among others by Neil Alles (as Poseidon), were impressive too. My only problem with the cast was with the actress playing Helen, who seemed to mumble and lack the impudence and verve required of that character.

Apart from that, however, the political subtext caught me, the plot moved me, and the frequent intrusions of the soldiers through the aisle genuinely thrilled me. It reinforced the message that Euripides’ Greece still lives on, within (and beyond) us. With or without Olympus.