Monday, August 15, 2016

Three plays, one festival, and the parameters of youth

Chandana Aluthge is a meticulous man. He knows what to say at any given moment and knows how to keep to a point. He is ever careful not to trip, understands the necessity of explaining everything to the last dot, and is patient with what he does. He is not a playwright only, he is a theatre practitioner. Words come to him as easily as scripts, I suppose, and for this reason what he and his team have embarked on doing this month deserves more than a footnote.

The Somalatha Subasinghe Playhouse was founded in 1981. It has tapped into and nurtured talent in more ways than one, turning ideas into scripts and veritable productions and ensuring that Sri Lanka isn’t impoverished for want of a good, reasonably popular theatre culture. That it has succeeded and survived more than two generations so far, no one doubts. Which is why its latest endeavour, a festival dedicated to youth and children, is significant.

On the 19th, 20th, and 21st of August at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, the Playhouse will unveil three plays in coordination with the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. ASSITEJ, as it’s known in common parlance, has a notable presence in the Playhouse: Chandana Aluthge is its General Secretary in Sri Lanka and has become a formidable personality therein. It was begun in 2010 in Japan with the aim of recognising talent and bringing together theatre artistes and practitioners from the entire continent. Given that the Playhouse remains the only organisation in Sri Lanka which not only stages professional plays for children and youth but also trains that same audience for the theatre, a combination between these two would doubtless be fruitful.

Having a festival in this context, therefore, makes sense. All three plays have been staged before, including that irrepressible double feature Punchi Apata Dan Therei and Thoppi Velenda. The founder of the Playhouse, Somalatha Subasinghe, was an avid enthusiast of children’s theatre herself: not surprisingly, that enthusiasm remains the cornerstone of the organisation. All three plays invite assessment and critique, consequently, and while I will not reveal their plot points (for those of you who haven’t watched them) I will nevertheless comment.

The entire show revolves around childhood and its inevitable absenting. The double feature is aimed at the child in us all, but with the next two plays, Vikurthi and Dutu Thana Allanu (the latter of which incidentally is directed by Subasinghe’s daughter Kaushalya Fernando) one can see the gradual erosion of values and denial of innocence which make them relevant to our time and more to the point, transcend time-space contexts. Vikurthi in particular, a prescribed text in the GCE Ordinary Level Drama and Theatre syllabus, has run for about 1,200 performances locally and internationally.

The message that Vikurthi gives is that of ambition (or the excess of it) and how, in the mad rush to turn cling on to opportunity, children are herded together and uprooted for the sake of what their parents want. Dutu Thana Allanu, on the other hand, more recent and hence more "relevant", is an adaptation of an adaptation (based on Opera Wonyosi by Wole Soyinka, itself an Africanisation of Brechet’s Three Penny Opera and John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera) and is about the hypocrisy, joviality, and deceptive calm which exists in a State run on and run through terror: an allegory filled with irony, pathos, and of course music. I know I am speaking for the rest of my countrymen and for the vast majority of theatre lovers when I say that we will especially look forward to these two plays. I’m sure Chandana and Kaushalya won’t disagree.

Someone once told me that the theatre, for better or worse, was and is the most “live” of the arts, a point I suspect everyone will concede to. It’s a different ballgame to other art-forms, and those who have mastered it while targeting a set audience (without conveniently scripting something in the hope of winning mass crowds) are to be lauded. Both Chandana and Kaushalya have, over the years, understood that audience well and more importantly understood the relevance that audience has to our theatre culture.

ASSITEJ Sri Lanka being the stakeholder it is in this enterprise deserves the last word through Chandana, I believe: “We sincerely hope that the theatre would be able to provide the wisdom for the people to establish values and principles for a truly pluralistic society.” Again, I know I am speaking for a great many others when I wish Chandana and Kaushalya luck and hope that they will succeed in their enterprise. No one can say there’s a dearth in the children’s theatre here, but it is owing to people like them that we can choose to celebrate on this count. Always.

We can thank them of course. And we can see what they’ve done. Next week.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 14 2016