Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lanerolle goes 'Fifty-Fifty'

On the 9th, 10th, and 11th of September at the Bishops College Auditorium, a group of Shakespeare aficionados (read “veterans”) will present H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “Fifty-Fifty”. This is not the first time the play has been staged. Nor will it be the last. And so, as with every other instance in which it has been unveiled to the general public, it will take a fresh lease of life this time around. In particular, for two reasons.

The first. “Fifty-Fifty” will be presented by Sri Lankan Cares, the community development branch of Sri Lankan Airlines. As such there’s a social aspect to the entire enterprise, with proceeds from the show going to the Sri Lankan Village Heartbeat Project, to uplift the underprivileged in Oddusuddan, Mullaitivu.

The second. This isn’t an ordinary play. “Tainted” as it is by a kind of farce and satire not easy to reckon with, it remains archaic and at the same time timeless. It also, one can add, characterises everyone involved in it well. For that reason perhaps, and given the socio-political context today, it should be watched. The playwright has as much to do with why you should, as those directing it this year.

Howard Camden Nanciers de Lanerolle was an intriguing playwright in that he had a way of dissecting the political using farce. He was not merciless (or dense) like Shaw. He could be, but his best plays or more to the point, the best sequences from his plays, leave room for hope. Now satire and hope don’t really coexist (because the objective of the former is to demolish the latter, one can snidely add) but in Lanerolle’s case, living as he did in the last few hours of colonial Ceylon, he grouped the two in a way which made us aware of those hours and how, in the postcolonial “moment”, we would grapple with a problem we still haven’t sorted out: that of identity.

He is arguably remembered more than anything else for his Ralahamy plays. Some say they made us laugh into independence. Others say they were crass, unseemly attempts at caricaturing the bumpkin and ranking him below the pukka sahib. I don’t wish to take sides here, but I will say this: in what I’ve seen so far, I’ve come across deliberate shows of humour which, while crude at one level, do more than caricature the bumpkin. As I argued with a friend of mine sometime back, what they did was make us laugh at ourselves without us noticing, until the final dénouement (at which point we did notice, and notice in such a way that we felt ashamed). In short, he made us demean ourselves and then made us realise how inferior we thought we were. Just like that.

“Fifty-Fifty” is not another Ralahamy play. That doesn’t mean it’s qualitatively inferior to them. Indeed, given the tendency of Lanerolle’s other stories to veer off to variations of the same plot, this one might well be a different kettle of fish altogether.

The story is complicated enough. Dionysius Sumanasekara is a wealthy gentleman coaxed by his friends Thambypillai and Hadjiar Abdul Hameed to contest a seat in the State Council by-election. “Fifty-Fifty” follows his political exploits, spiced by his wife Charlotte, his daughter Nanda, a black market racketeer called Abraham Muttiah, and Dionysius’ campaign manager Chelvam Devarajan, who is in love with Nanda. Whether, where, and how it’ll all end are questions best answered by the audience. Not the critic.

In the meantime though, one can comment. “Fifty-Fifty” was staged at a time when Soulbury had come and gone, when his proposals for constitutional reform had been tabled and affirmed by pretty much the majority of the State Council. Those reforms would, in later years, be deemed inadequate by the people of the country. Lanerolle doubtless saw them as liberal, a point which is not without its critics but which is debatable nevertheless.

The fact is that the Soulbury reforms were considered as a way out for colonial Ceylon. It was also considered as a way for the country to affirm an all-encompassing identity, unhindered by ethnicity or any other “arbitrary” demarcations. Unfortunately, politicos saw in this an opportunity to make a quick buck. And so the predictable happened: they contorted it and in the process splintered communities that had been at peace with each other for centuries. The reference of the title, not surprisingly, is to one such contortion, contended for in terms of “balanced representation” for the minority community (an argument which, in one sense at least, led to the inevitable backlash: superiority for the numerical majority) by the inimitable G. G. Ponnambalam.

All this is of course “history”. History, however, is open, and for the artiste the fact that it is open should compel him to interpret. That’s arguably what Lanerolle (whether or not you agree with his take on the political) did, and more than six decades after independence, the fact that we’re still searching for a proper, cohesive identity to bind us together probably means that we need more artistes, playwrights, and satirists than politicos to guide us.

I can go on about this, but now’s not the time.

“Fifty-Fifty” will be presented by Sri Lankan Cares in collaboration with Amphitheatre, a production company based in Kynsey Road. The cast include some veterans and Shakespeare aficionados, as I mentioned before: Yasal Ruhunage as Dionysius Sumanasekara, Kavinda Gunasekara as Mr Thambypillai, Shenilka Perera as Charlotte Sumanasekara, Leyanvi Mirando as Nanda Sumanasekara, Anaz Badurdeen as Chelvam Devarajan, Sahan Wijewardene as Hadjiar Abdul Hameed, and Jaliya Wijewardene as Abraham Muttiah. Jaliya, incidentally, will be directing it.

They will all unveil themselves. Next month. The best way to take their message in, I believe, is by seeing them. For yourself.

You can purchase tickets through or at the Bishops College Auditorium. For more details, you can call 0773248393 and 0766975422

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 28 2016