Sunday, December 11, 2016

The end of the affair

Review of Jith Pieris’ “Affair at Ward Place Hotel”, staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on October 28 and 29

We live in a world where works of art tend to relate to one another, so much so that it’s difficult to distinguish between, say, a film and a play which broach on the same subject. There’s a term that’s tossed out by postmodernists in this regard: intertextuality, or to what degree an objet d’art resembles another. In the hands of the unwary critic, however, it becomes an obsession almost, a reason to try and spot out those discernible marks (which make one think, “This reminds me of such and such a story from elsewhere”) in nearly every film or play that critic encounters.

All this came to me on October 28 as I watched Jith Pieris’ latest, Affair at Ward Place Hotel, at the Lionel Wendt. Scandals, particularly political scandals, have become so common that one doesn’t really bother to keep up with the news anymore. I suspect Pieris has realised the hackneyed nature of such a theme, for he’s tried to present it while giving the impression of having put in half a dozen other plot devices to keep us entertained. Did he succeed? Maybe, but let’s get to that later.

Affair at Ward Place Hotel began with probably the most unexpected thing ever: Harry Belafonte’s rendition of "Island in the Sun". For two minutes we were kept in the dark, literally, as Belafonte sang of the sweat, the blood, and the toil of living and working in the island, before we saw two people who embodied the opposite of all that: Wasaam Ismail as an errant Establishment politician (Ranjith Wijesundera) and Eraj Gunawardane as his cousin Dev. Ranjith is facing that acutely common problem people of his calibre face: keeping the Big Boss happy.

Dev is an idealist. Ranjith isn’t. This comes out in the conversation between the two: Dev has come up with a speech with some statistics pertaining to his cousin’s Ministry (Transport), which the latter at once rejects. He doesn’t want facts, he wants frill. Statistics for him aren’t what count for popularity in this age of rhetoric, so he asks Dev to rewrite the speech. That however is peripheral to an even more common problem: Ranjith needs to get cosy with the Other Woman in his life.

The predictable happens: Ranjith has a wife, the wife is unaware of the mistress (a film star, Sammy Perera), Dev is asked by his cousin to conceal some toys (I desist from explaining what they are) in a bag, that bag gets mixed up with another belonging to a demagogue politico from the Opposition (by name, Jayanath Weerakoon), and in the rush to get the correct bag back from the room at the Ward Place Hotel, each party comes across nasty secrets belonging to the other. What these secrets are, I will not explain: they are part of the narrative and the narrative, it must be said, shouldn’t be explicated in full. After all, the role of the critic is not to explicate, but to comment.

So I will comment. The narrative of Affair at Ward Place Hotel, for me at least, spoke for itself, which has more to do with the genre it’s placed in. Much of what goes for political farces, after all, provokes humour because they strike a chord in us rather uncomfortably. Who wouldn’t laugh at the exchanges between Ranjith and Jayanath, as they talk convivially with (while plotting against) each other? Who wouldn’t grin when Ranjith talks about “buying off” the other side?

Point is, humour at the Wendt has won a certain following because that humour tends to reflect the political. How successful that humour is depends on the playwright’s ability to placate his audience with a veneer of fiction. Sometimes this becomes hackneyed, sometimes it tends to go over the top. Jith, however (fortunately for us and being the veteran he is), didn't trip here: he filled his Affair with enough contraptions to give at least the illusion of novelty.

And to an extent, this had to do with his cast. Wasaam Ismail was scintillating as Ranjith: confused, frustrated, overconfident, egotistic, and when faced with scandal, dim. Eraj Gunawardane is at his best when depicting blue eyed and naive characters, and here he triumphed as Dev. I couldn’t help but smile at his arguments with Ranjith (the one an Honest Abe, the other a sardonic realist) and I couldn’t help but grin as he remembered their younger days, when Ranjith would constantly bully and torment him: such childhood feuds aren’t really the preserve of political families, but they go a long way in shaping the divide between the realists and the idealists.

There were others. Kithmina Hewage as Jayanath Weerakoon, I felt, acted with enough wit to make us remember the tragicomic dichotomy at the heart of the populist: between his public face (pure, charismatic, and appealing to rhetoric) and his private life. Nilushi Dewapura as his aide Sharika showed promise, but the relationship between her and Dev didn’t get to where the audience would have wanted it to be, with Dev as the absent-minded University graduate and her as the frank, assertive political understudy (always a favourite combination when it comes to the dramatic potential of that dictum about opposites attracting).

Pemanthi Fernando was delightful as Ranjith’s wife Dimi, whose stout and overbearing figure made up the humour at the centre of her husband’s affections for his Other Woman, Sammy Perera (Thanuki Goonesinghe dishing out a solid, though not as complex, performance). As for the rest, Lithmal Jayawardhana was an Indian waiter (along with Madura Wijeratne, Nandika Thevarapperuma, and Ravin Hettiarachchi) who compensated for the script’s less than flattering depiction of his character with enough mannerisms to keep us laughing (at one point the four of them seemed ready to do a “Singing Waiters” item, and I confess I was looking forward to such a thing myself). All in all, entertaining.

I wrote of dichotomies before. Affair at Ward Place Hotel was filled with them from the word go: between Ranjith and Dev, between Ranjith and Jayanath, between Dev and Sharika, and between Dimi and Sammy. But that didn’t make them personal only: they were made to relate to the wider political and social context of the narrative, aptly summed up by the best one-liner in the play (dished out by Ranjith): “People want politics in theatre and theatre in politics.” Which is what, I thought to myself, and then I realised: it doesn’t matter anymore.

Compounding all this was the decision to have Nandun Dissanayake, that epitome of self-amusement and self-mockery in our English theatre, read the introductory announcement. The seriousness with which he spoke was at odds with our image of him as anything but serious, a hilarious distortion of the reality by the myth which could have been said of the many rifts that adorned, shaped, and coloured Jith’s play. Such rifts might have jarred and confused, but here they did not. Thankfully and mercifully, one can add.

In the final analysis therefore, Affair at Ward Place Hotel delivered. As is typical of such plays, they were catered to those who had time to kill, who wished to laugh at our political landscape with the luxury of detachment that only artistes can bring about. I confess that my verdict is woefully inadequate to convey to the reader a summing up of the worth of the play, but then again I suppose one doesn’t have to be a connoisseur to glean the base and essence of a work of art.

So to wrap up: Jith’s latest was a veritable assortment, a melting pot that brought together stories we have encountered and tropes that have been assembled, in more ways than one, before, which compelled my comment on intertextuality at the beginning of this review. Did that help? Maybe. Did I enjoy it? Of course. Did it achieve what it set out to achieve? I hope so.

Photos courtesy of: Drama Sri Lanka and Nishantha de Silva

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, December 11 2016