Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wesley College encounters the Bard

I remember a conversation I had with Professor Carlo Fonseka about four years ago. We were talking about how the arts, in the long run at least, could help explain the social and political in ways that the social sciences could not. Inevitably, he brought up Shakespeare. I am not an unconditional fan of the Bard, but I alluded to Julius Caesar and implicitly encouraged the Professor to bring up an example of what I felt to be that play’s take on political intrigue.

As expected, he referred that most referred-to sequence in it, when Mark Antony, in an attempt to turn the mob against their self-appointed saviours, inflames the Romans against Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassinators of Caesar in front of his mutilated body. To add flavour to his reference, Professor Carlo turned to me and exclaimed, “Eh miniha mulu loketama e avasthawedi vachalayon gana kiya dunna” (at that moment, the man taught the entire world who demagogues really were). Since then, needless to say, Julius Caesar has remained my favourite work of the Bard.

And it’s not hard to see why. It’s not typical even by Shakespeare’s standards: it lacks the decor and metaphors which adorn his other tragedies and historical plays. It deceives us into believing that its characters are embodiments of virtue or vice, when in fact they occupy an intricate universe in which nothing is as it seems. Antony’s speech is probably the best example for this, but the truth of the matter is that when it comes to filming, staging, and even commenting on the play, you have to be mindful of the many complexities that Shakespeare, in his wisdom and wit, dipped it in.

All this came to me the other week as I watched the boys of the Drama Society of Wesley College take me back to that moment when Brutus, in a fit of remorse, questions himself as to whether Caesar should be assassinated. The date: Thursday, October 20. The time: about 7.30 pm. The place: the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre, Borella. The boys from Wesley had christened the event: “Chorus and the Bard.” It was, admittedly, less about the former than the latter, but for the purpose of this review let’s forget that.

“Chorus and the Bard” was a follow-up, and an apt one at that, to the school’s triumph at this year’s Interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition (ISDC), where after six years they passed out into the finals. They would lose a battle but win a war: St Peter’s clinched the trophy, but Wesley clinched the award for Best Actor.

Last Thursday, going by this, was the perfect opportunity for the boys to relive their moment, albeit in a more nuanced setting. They did that not by merely re-enacting their moment at the ISDC, but by bringing in another array of talent that deserved the public gaze: the school Choir.

The show began with a whimper. It soon picked up, thanks to a carefully sketched out schedule, as it accelerated with the songs chosen and sung. Three rather soft and nuanced pieces followed a medley performed by the Choir. The latter, which lasted for about five items, was led by the Choir Trainer at Wesley, Ms Rachel Halliday, who I saw last year at the Festival of Choirs and who draw vast reserves of energy, pomp, and verve from her singers. They entranced us with a torrent of items by Queen, from “We Are the Champions” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That was immediately followed up by a five-member performance. All in all, entertaining.

The first half was done. Before the second half however, someone spoke: Kevin Cruz, who’d trained Wesley at this year’s Competition, and who was handed more than one token of appreciation by his cast during the intermission.

Cruz reflected on accomplishment. He argued that despite the many challenges, obstacles, and out-of-the-blue coincidences that overwhelm the performing arts, what matters is what comes out through the performer’s perseverance.

And to add flavour to his speech (which, by his own admission, he had not expected to deliver), he drew from personal experience. He recounted an incident from several years ago, when he’d staged Julius Caesar with another team and had staged the moment and aftermath of Caesar’s murder. Apparently the roads had been quite deserted back then, so he’d been forced to carry a particularly large prop all the way home, in the dead of the night.

As luck would have it, he’d been stopped. By a police officer. “It was not the best encounter I could have asked for. To start things off, my hands were covered in red. I was carrying Caesar’s mantle. To make matters worse, I was a Tamil, which in those days aroused suspicion at once. And to make matters even worse, I was carrying the daggers used to kill Caesar with me.” The audience laughed at the bathos and the irony, and he laughed with them.

The show then proceeded to its second half. The boys from Wesley performed (as with “Shakes2016”) sections from Act II of the play, bringing out Brutus’ feelings of remorse and the crisis of conscience he undergoes on the night before Caesar’s murder. I am no actor, so I am not fit to judge the individual veracities of the cast, but I will say this: in keeping with Cruz’s flair for colour, I saw a vibrant if not dazzling take on Brutus’ transformation into a murderer and Caesar’s downfall. Much of that on account, no doubt, of the actor playing the murderer, Taariq Jurangpathy.

Taariq was a marvel. He looked confused but didn’t betray it. He seemed caught in a flux of emotions but retained a superficial calm. In keeping with his character, he rationalised his crime in terms of the greater good (Caesar’s death representing to him the end of tyranny) but gave the impression, subtly and surely, that he was spurred by a sense of self-worth rather than the altruism he displays to the world outside.

Brutus, the way I see it, confirms what Orwell said of Gandhi: “Sainthood is the one thing that human beings must avoid.” Caesar’s murderers are all beasts and exist for the sake of their instincts, but Brutus stands out as a veritable hypocrite, the idealist who expects others to bow down to him because of his ideals. In other words, he is a saint with all the vices of a self-righteous, overconfident egoist.

While this didn’t come out in its entirety in what Wesley staged, nevertheless I saw enough of a contradiction between the assassin and the victim to draw inferences. Brutus was stately, regal, charming (Taariq, it must be said, has the kind of face that could almost be described as Roman), while Caesar was stout, confused, indulgent (at odds with the usual image of the man as thin, sallow, sour-faced, and essentially weak).

That contradiction probably made up for the absenting of Brutus’ conversation with Portia (which in the play is used as a counterpart to the tempestuous, frenzied dialogue between Caesar and Calpurnia later on), and in the end explained the barely hidden contempt indulged by the assassins against the Emperor. And as those assassins rounded up on an immobile Caesar, I could only gasp: here was colour, vibrancy, and to my relief, a flourish to an otherwise melodramatic sequence. A friend of mine put it best: “They were like vultures rounding up on their prey.” Aptly put.

I am not a good judge and certainly not fit to judge productions like this, so I leave the task of assessing its merits to another, more suitable critic. That, however, does not preclude comment. So I will comment.

The props, the colours, and the looming sense of death, despair, and revolution were all brought out by the cast, not to mention the twists and turns of character that our protagonist undergoes (all in the short space of half-an-hour, mind you). The rest of the cast took risks and got emboldened. In the end, they too added colour. As they should.

At one point it was hard to take Cassius and his schemers apart, they blended with each other so well that they performed their role (unearthing Brutus’ “baser instincts”) excellently. It is impossible to do justice to a play without performing it in its entirety, but the boys at Wesley proved that with enough sensitivity, they could give out the illusion of staging such a play in under half-an-hour.

“Chorus and the Bard” ended, by the way, with another speech. Wasaam Ismail, thespian, presenter, and lecturer, who’d been coveted as Best Actor at the ISDC in 2006 and had been involved with the Wesleyites at this year’s Competition, spoke. Like Cruz, he was caught off-guard, again not prepared for a speech. Like Cruz, he delivered one impromptu, this time opting for a theme as perennial as it is unanswerable: what is the use of drama and the theatre?

Wasaam didn’t answer it directly. Instead, he reflected. Academics, he conceded, were important, but drawing from personal experience he argued that they did not, do not, and will not define us for who we are. More than anything else, the theatre erases away fear, that irrepressible menace which keeps us from achieving our potential. Fittingly therefore, he ended with an appeal: “Do your homework, maintain good grades, but know that marks aren’t the be-all and end-all of your life.” It was, all in all, a fitting end to a show that was closing in on a bang.

“Chorus and the Bard”, at the end of the day, delivered. I liked and took to it. I’m sure that everyone who came to watch it, including the Chief Guest (Elizabeth Sophie Balsa, the Ambassador for Brazil) and Guest of Honour (Yashoda Wimaladharma) encountered the untouchable, which only the acutest voices and gestures could convey to a lay audience.

It would be an understatement to say that Wesley did just that, so I conclude: I can only relish the thought that they’ll perform the whole of what I firmly consider to be one of Shakespeare’s most atypical and likeable plays.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 30 2016