Sunday, August 21, 2016

'Hankithi Dahathuna': No signs please!

Review of Jayantha Chandrasiri’s “Hankithi Dahathuna”, staged on August 13 and 14 at the Tower Hall, Maradana

Jayantha Chandrasiri tends to comment on the political rather idiosyncratically. He opts for the harder path, resists the urge to simplify, and garbs his themes in colourful ways. Those themes, moreover, aren’t easy to spot out, and for this reason there’s a lot of reading between the lines that goes on whenever we attempt to interpret his work. In lesser hands, I believe, this may give a license to confuse complexity for lack of clarity, but in Chandrasiri’s case (except for the occasional slipup) he has persevered. And succeeded.

Last Saturday and Sunday at the Tower Hall, Maradana, he unveiled his latest play, "Hankithi Dahathuna". There was satire, there was entertainment, I laughed and so did others, but for me its message was less important than its narrative. At the end of it all we were, predictably, scratching our heads, wondering not only what it was that we’d seen but what we could take home from it. It delivered what it promised, but I wonder whether there was more we could have taken off of it.

What was "Hankithi Dahathuna" about, come to think of it? More to the point, what should it have been about? Ostensibly it’s about love and its commercialisation, but to reduce its entire thrust to as hackneyed a theme as that would, I believe, be doing a disservice to Chandrasiri and his cast. In terms of themes, therefore, I would prefer to stay away from such reductionist inferences and delve into the play itself.

To start things off, the title provokes comment: it’s not a reference to the plot’s comic potential (as I thought it was) but the name of a brothel. The story starts off rather arbitrarily: a man (Sriyantha Mendis) on a railway platform, encountering another man who may or may not be a porter. Mendis is a Judge and therefore deemed as respectable in public life. He is ostensibly at the station to meet a friend, but as the story progresses we get his real motive: to jaunt off to Hankithi Dahathuna without anyone noticing.

The Judge, thankfully I should think, isn’t your typical nymphomaniac parading as an arbiter of the law: on the contrary, Chandrasiri gives him enough complexity to make us feel he’s as human as us. With the other visitors to the brothel, however, he opts for caricature. One of those visitors, a politico played by Jayalal Rohana (who virtually charmed the audience into laughter) gets into a tussle with the manageress (Kusum Renu, charming and stately as always) and vows to raid Hankithi Dahathuna (we’re told that several big shots in the government patronise it, explaining why it hasn’t been raided before). Mendis’ Judge, meanwhile, swallows several Viagra tablets, suffers a heart attack, and is left for dead by the manageress and the girls at the railway station.

I can go on, but then the play isn’t just plot. If it was, I wouldn’t have bothered to review it.

"Hankithi Dahathuna", as I mentioned before, can’t be reduced to overused themes. It was less about love than its manifest ambiguity, and more about the divide between the public and the private than anything else. Chandrasiri doesn’t usually hand out character certificates or indulge in moral exhortations, but when he does he makes sure there’s just about complexity to prevent his cast from depicting cut-outs and not people. He does it here by presenting an interesting question to his audience: should the private life of a person reflect his public image? He refuses to answer it, not because he can’t but because to have answered it would have given the impression that it can be answered easily. It’s not, I’m sure Chandrasiri knows that, and I’m also sure that those who saw the play inferred this.

And I’d like to think that he structured his narrative to accommodate this: while the first and second Acts introduce us to the dichotomy between the public and the private, the third and fourth dwell on the futility of maintaining such a dichotomy and how, at the end of the day, it tends to come off. There were some snide remarks on the “social media generation”, as we’re known, in particular Facebook and its potential to undress even the most respectable of citizens, which was why, when the manageress and her three girls are threatened with punishment at the Courts, they in turn threaten the three men who attempt to convict them (including Vasantha Vittachchi, who represents Rohana in Court and who himself has frequented Hankithi Dahathuna) with disclosure.

I couldn’t help but smile (rather wryly, though) when they peeled off their threat: “Our supporters are out there, ready for our sign to leak the videos we took of you on Facebook!” one of them chortles, to which the three hapless men can only plead, “No signs, please!” (“Sanya epaa!”). Almost reminded me of a story by Saki called Hyacinth, in which the eponymous character threatens to release a pig on the children of a popular candidate unless that candidate’s opponent (who happens to be Hyacinth’s father) is declared winner. There’s sarcasm and irony here, buttressed by what the manageress demands next: not only must the three men withdraw their allegations, they must also punish themselves for what they’ve done, by suicide or confession. A classic Catch-22 dilemma, no doubt.

Chandrasiri didn’t go for stock figures, but then plays aren’t completely free from such characters. I saw this in his depiction of the two police officers, Laurel and Hardy stereotypes who, while not really cardboard cut-outs, nevertheless embraced the kind of one-dimensionality endowed on them by those who see them as upholders of that dichotomy between the private and the public, who see and hear no evil when it comes to powerful figures and feign respect when confronted with authority. For me this came out most powerfully in the sequence when Sriyantha Mendis’ Judge regains consciousness after suffering a Viagra-induced heart attack and gasps for water in front of them: they don’t notice him, but when they do they take their cue at once, rising up and saluting a man who they believe deserves unconditional deference.

That kind of sucking up isn’t the preserve of police officers, though. In the end we all share the blame, since as a community we obsess over maintaining a facade of integrity when it comes to even the most integrity-deficient people in this vast, interminable world of ours. On that count therefore, Chandrasiri left us with a message we could take home, provided of course that we were ready to. After all, if Chandrasiri thought of ending his play with an easy answer, I wouldn’t have taken the trouble of reviewing it. There was more he gave. Much more.

And so I conclude: I grinned, I laughed, and I sobered. In that order. I believe Chandrasiri meant us to react to his latest work likewise. I believe, also, that he deserves approbation for his effort, not just by garlanding it but by acknowledging that we are all visitors to Hankithi Dahathuna, who refuse to see beyond its parameters when living our own personal lives but are ready to denounce its less than desirable aspects which we ourselves secretly indulge in.

One final point. When Jayalal Rohana’s character pompously declares, “I am the people, the people are me!” I couldn’t help but chuckle: modern democracy, it seems, has dichotomised the private and the public in ways even those aware of it can’t understand. When it comes to dishing out blame (going by Chandrasiri’s lesson), we don’t have to look far. We have only to look at a mirror.

Written for: The Island LEISURE, August 21 2016