Monday, December 7, 2015

Lionising the villain and the aesthetic

Review of Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno", staged on October 10 and 11 at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium

Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" doesn't really have a beginning and ending. It doesn't follow conventional theatre for the simple reason that it's crafted as experiment. This however doesn't endear it to the academic and intellectual only, and as can be seen on the emotion registered on the audience's faces, it'd be safe to say that Ferdinando has struck a chord between the aesthetic and the academic. No mean feat that, you must admit.

I have come to believe that labels do scant justice to works of art, but with "Signno" they help. And this isn't my view, please note: Indika himself has made use of labels to help us identify what his story is all about. He's called it a "ritualistic parable", a term which (as per his experiment) succinctly captures both tradition and modernity in one go.

And this isn't all. "A parable to what?" is a question some would ask. "To everything," we can reply. Indika's play delves into the political, social, religious, and indulges satire with them all. He's to be commended for how he has stuck well by his vision ("Signno" basically is his thesis for Monash University) while at the same time keeping in mind that his audience's interest must for three hours (which was how long it lasted) be sustained. By this criterion, he did achieve what he wanted, but I wondered whether he could have achieved more.

Anyway. The "story" that Indika relates to us is a challenge in itself. There are certain points which the audience may grapple with. Does Signno ever repent? Does his triumph over Death augur well? Do Signno’s actions provide some message to be taken to heart by us? These are questions which spectators (or, as Indika prefers to call them, "experiencers") will no doubt ask and will no doubt get little to no replies to. A "given", since "Signno" isn’t supposed to answer or resolve, but to accentuate.

The "message" he brings out in his story isn't easy to tackle either. One can't reveal everything, but the plot basically recounts that timeless but always alluded to fight between Life and Death, or rather the hedonism of the former and the worldly wisdom of the latter. It threatens to delve into Faust, but (wisely) Indika strays from pouring a barrage of cliches on us. In the end what he achieves is what sustains audiences most: a bending (or revamping) of cliche, done in a way which escapes the eye at first but becomes more and more apparent as the play drives into its final, tortuous sequence.

This is where the cast aced. Big time. Saumya Liyanage as "Death" (Vasavarthi Mara) was towering, constantly peppering his role with humour and ferocity (whenever he announces himself, his “entourage” shriek and howl). Without losing his grip on a story that teetered between the larger-than-life and the down-to-earth, he made his final encounter with Signno all the more predictable and at the same time tortuous, which rid the ending of any unneeded "final victory" and instead injected a final, ironic twist into it.

Stefan Tirimanne as Signno was more dynamic, thanks to a script that transformed him not once but thrice. Lending conviction to his first transformation – from a suicidal nobody to a soon-to-be messiah – he then went haywire (as per the script) and craftily outsmarted Death. And here he went through his second transformation – to a power-hungry magician.

By disobeying moral sanction (he imprisons Death and presents himself as God), he invites invasion from angel and demon, and here he faces defeat. But no: through a THIRD transformation (best unrevealed here), he embodied the real twist of the play. The plot-line, after all, has him as Faust and Mara as Mephistopheles. But the ending, with its twists and convolutions and unresolved note, pitted the two against one another and (shockingly) turned the one INTO the other.

The rest of the cast were excellent, particularly two players: Saviour Kanishka as the narrator, who offers comment and appears more the engaged raconteur; and Jithendra Vidyapathi as an effete Salu Paliya, who repeatedly tries to push his "alternative narrative" into the audience, but forgets when he's allowed to do so (the interaction between these two provides much of the play's humour, which threatens to jar at some points but never does, a testament no doubt to how Indika has scripted his experiment). The rest of the cast did wonders, playing multiple roles while accounting for their differing personalities.

Salu Paliya does more than what I mentioned above, I suspect. He provides a point of reference on which we can interpret and make conclusions about the point Indika tries to drive home. There are no heroes in his world, just as much as there aren't any villains.

"Why must we lionise the villain?" Salu Paliya asks, in effect questioning the very flow of the play he's in. He's referring to Signno and Death in one go there, and for me the question says it all about the anti-heroic thrust of the story. Salu Paliya can't succeed in propounding his alternative narrative in the story: the show must go on, and the universe, whether we like it or not, must be housed not by heroes or villains but by life and death, each imperfect in its own special way.

That this is true not just for life and death but for every other character is shown in the sequence of the King and his daughter, and of course that of the old man and his family (when the latter gets to know that his wife is by his deathbed, he has just one thing to say: "Apo, she's here too?").

“More than anything, I want the audience to feel what they’re watching” was what Indika said of his goal in "Signno" in an earlier interview. Did it stand up-to this litmus test? Suffice it to say that for me personally, it did stand up, but not in the way he pulled us into the story by emitting fragrances throughout the hall and even serving refreshments to the audience at the same time that the cast eats in the play.

In the conversations between the narrator and Salu Paliya, the latter's insistence on reconfiguring the story for himself, and of course Signno's “apotheosis” and transformation in the end, there was an erasure of the audience/performance barrier which Indika sought after. It was with these and not with those peeled off, raw devices that the playwright achieved his goal. Laudably.

Yes, Indika won. So did Signno. And so did Death. "How confusing!" Salu Paliya can blurt out. Rightly.

Written for: Sunday Island, December 6 2015