Friday, August 14, 2015

Theatre in heady (and heavy) doses

Desmond MacCarthy had once witnessed some schoolboys rendering Henry IV in London. He had been moved. "Than this," he had written, "there could be no better way of getting the young to care about Shakespeare." It wasn't just the performance that had impressed him. It was the way the boys had come together, almost involuntarily like ducks taking to water. "The right entrance to the garden of Literature and Art," MacCarthy continued, "is through the gate of excitement and pleasure." Apt.

Shakespeare is timeless. He's an icon. Yes, he's a sacred cow to some. To everyone else though, he's open to interpretation. When his work and the work of his ancestors and his successors are taken up and modified to suit context, there's creativity. More importantly, there's progress. All this and more are being echoed by a group of schoolboys and lovers of English theatre. Here.

The group has a name. AnandaDrama.

I spoke with two of its leading members, Nishantha de Silva and Rajitha Hettiarachchi, some weeks back. They'd staged Dracula! six days before. Reviews had been kind, I was told. The play, which toyed around with the Count's story colourfully, was the latest in AnandaDrama's tortuous history. It showed the team at its best. For now.

Its history "distinguishes" it the most. "For a long time, we never had an English drama society at school," Nishantha tells me, "We had one or two from time to time. But overall and compared with other schools in Colombo, we were behind. Way behind."

The "turning point" had been 2006. That's when Nishantha together with a bunch of students had formed a Drama Circle at school. Their "baptism of fire" had been a short extract from Timon of Athens. "That isn't a text people usually go for," Rajitha tells me, "But we opted for it." They hadn't got into the Finals. Hadn't bothered them.

Reputations are a dime a dozen and hard to keep, but when it came to English theatre in schools in and around Colombo, the group began gaining them. Quickly. "We followed Timon with Macbeth, Coriolanus, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet," Rajitha remembers. Rajitha himself had come into the Circle in 2010, together with another leading member, Ishtartha Wellaboda.

Three years later (2013), after another member (Eraj Gunawardena) had joined the team, the Drama Circle "became" AnandaDrama. Just like that. "We're a Non-Profit Company Limited by Guarantee," Rajitha and Nishantha explain to me, "Neither a company nor a charity, but something close to both."

So what guides AnandaDrama? "First of all, we don't target competitions. We don't buy the notion that we should. There's so much to the theatre apart from prizes, which we instill as an attitude in our students," Nishantha tells me. "Secondly, we take in everyone who shows interest. This means, and we are quite clear about it, that we don't 'exclude' on the basis of proficiency in language."

Rajitha interjects here. "Students are afraid of 'approaching' English because they think that what matters is diction. Not so. By engaging with that language with creativity and constant vigilance, you can get over that fear. Here at AnandaDrama, those we tutor get the hang of the 'lingo', sooner or later."

Both concede that veterans have lent support unconditionally. "To name two of them, Feroze Kamardeen and Thushara Hettihamu. Like them, we're 'at home' with Lionel Wendt. Not that we are an esoteric circle, but there is a crowd we accommodate frequently."

Awards? "Plenty!" both of them smile as they roll off the list. What “strikes” in that is their presence at the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition, organised towards the end of each year. "We've taken part in 'Shakes' and done our level best. There's no hard-and-fast rule as to who's accepted for the cast, but once you're in, you're in." They tell me that boys from below O/Levels and Grade 10 have participated as well, a sign of how they've "spread" their gospel in and around school.

The future? "We're thinking of going beyond. It'd be interesting, for instance, to take Dracula! abroad. To be sure, we'll be doing reruns. More importantly however, we would like to be regarded as a national group. For that, we need to go forward. Big time."

English theatre isn't only about Shakespeare and for this reason AnandaDrama has "encountered" other texts. A witty take on Lewis Carroll's classic (Alles in Wonderland), Michael Morpurgos' Kensuke's Kingdom, a fusion of Christian Anderson, Perrault, and pop culture (The Most Peculiar and Lamentable Tragedy of the Girl in Red), and of course Ruwanthi de Chickera's Grease Yaka. I recall (and prefer) Dilshan Boange's take on that one: "It deals with a heady subject in heavy doses."

Ironic. Sums up AnandaDrama. Nicely. Desmond MacCarthy would have been proud, I'm sure.

Written for: The Nation FREE, August 14 2015