Monday, February 29, 2016

A relic ‘unearthed’

A “reading” of Namel Weeramuni’s production of H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “The Dictator”, staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on February 7 

Namel Weeramuni’s production of H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “The Dictator” transforms a theme that’s politically contextualised into one that’s timeless and universal. For the most. I liked the sets, the dialogues, the scripting, and the flow from scene to scene. There was rhythm, or rather the illusion of rhythm, so pivotal to the play for the simple reason that it detours rather deftly when the audience neared its end. Very few English plays, particularly those staged at Lionel Wendt, have grabbed me for their articulation and dialogues. This one did. And not just because of what I’ve pointed above.

What comes out (superficially) in “The Dictator” is its comedy. The opening scenes, set against the backdrop of a leisured, aristocratic sitting room, might as well have been taken from a Shavian play (particularly with regard to its rather mundane dialogues that gain a fresh lease of life as the story progresses). Like all good comedies which I have enjoyed however, the humour doesn’t exist for its own sake. Its role isn’t merely to entertain, but to present its world from the perspective of a kindly, misunderstood, and all too familiar figure: Ralahamy, played to perfection by Wijeratne Warakagoda.

I remember talking with a critic, poet, and commentator some time back. He made a comment to the effect that certain English plays made deliberate use of the inability of the “native” in this country to articulate English properly, thereby turning him into a buffoon-like figure. He went on to argue that this reinforces a colonialist mindset, if at all because it pits the refinement of the Anglophile “pukka sahib” against the rooted, betel-chewing “godaya”. He didn’t mention “The Dictator” specifically, but I’m sure some of those who heard his comment would have extrapolated at once and condemned Lanerolle’s play.

That’s one line of thinking, though. The other line came to me in a review of the play, back when it was first staged last year, by the inimitable Dilshan Boange. Boange has a knack for identifying subtleties within the framework of a work of art, and in his review he argued that what Lanerolle’s play does by making Ralahamy (full name: Nanayakkara Mudiyanselage Brumpy Gunadasa) a figure to ridicule and laugh at is to awaken the colonialist in us, lurking in the shadows for the right moment to come.

I agree with both arguments, but I’m not sure whether the first can really be extrapolated to include “The Dictator”. Boange’s contention has a ring of truth in it: I laughed at the deliberate mispronunciations that would have paled English professors and even teachers (when his wife asks whether he’s as important as he cuts himself out as, he hushes her rather strangely and says, “I am not impotent!”). And yet, when the curtain fell down and we saw Ralahamy’s fate – his dream where the British makes him the “Dictator of Ceylon” and where he tries to “nativise” the country is shattered when he’s killed off for practically no rhyme or reason – we tend to question ourselves.

Like all reflective works of art, therefore, this one can’t really be framed with reference to one interpretation or the other. There’s a multidimensionality here which transcends a narrow, crass reading, and which congeals into one salient question: are we (as a nation) any better or any more self-confident than we were during the time that Lanerolle’s play was staged?

I know a counterargument some may (or will) make against this: that the social content of the crowd that went and watched “The Dictator” two weeks back was and is different to the crowd that patronise Lionel Wendt today. I won’t argue, but I will say this: in the 1950s the English-speaking elite laughed at Ralahamy, and in 2016 the urbanised, cosmopolitan, rootless middle-class did the same. Whether the way he was laughed at is different to the way he is today isn’t that important. Lanerolle’s greatest strength is in how he deceives us and makes us laugh at what we think is his stupidity and naiveté (I admit even I was tickled by his outlandish and yet simple strategy for winning the war against the “Japs”), and then at once diverts the mood of his story to instil some sobriety into it.

In short, “The Dictator” didn’t offer resolution, if at all because it doesn’t need to. It offers us the opportunity to reassess ourselves and our colonialist attitude, opening our minds to the reality we are placed in. The message that I “read into” this remarkable comedy – that the “native” is condemned because we refuse to lend credence or view him with sympathy – was distilled excellently. I know that’s no cause for happiness, because more than 60 years after we got independence we continue to ridicule the “godaya” and praise the “pukka sahib”. This, I must add, will stay with us always, long after we die and long after we are taught by our teachers and peers that the West is best and everything made here will, of necessity, remain “inferior”.

Ralahamy’s death, in other words, was a classic treatise on "nationalism" for all of us. “The Dictator” may have been a “relic”, as I pointed out before. But it’s an "unearthed" relic, one which admirably purports to awaken the “kalu sudda” in us, by making us laugh at Wijeratne Warakagoda’s buffoonish but lovable protagonist and then turning humour into sympathy. It was a refreshing contrast to the kind of plays I’ve been seeing until now. A bouquet is called for Mr Weeramuni and Mr Lanerolle, no doubt.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 28 2016