Sunday, May 21, 2017

Drama Comp 2017: Going to the theatre

Part of the pleasure of watching school plays derives from the fact that they’re almost always spontaneous. It’s exciting to come across such productions, because theatre is a public art and is based fundamentally on what can be expressed and projected. That is why children (and teenagers) ace it onstage: they know how to express without embellishing what they project. The best school productions or skits, consequently, don’t actually stand out: they merely reinvent the clichés of serious theatre.

Drama Comp, organised by the Interact Club of Royal College, has tried for 31 years to break away from this perspective. Like the annual interschool Shakespeare Competition, it indulges the theatrics of the young with yardsticks set by the old. There are judging criteria and marks allocated to the categories therein: acting, direction, team work, and effect. Here’s a sketch of how these took into account the strengths and limitations of what were staged at the 32nd Drama Comp, held at the Lionel Wendt on Tuesday, May 9. Starting with (what else?) the merits and demerits of what were staged.

I was told by a friend that the first skit (“I Know You”), organised by Ananda College, would interest me acutely. So it did. The production was hyperlinked. It was more or less one of those pathos-ridden plots where coincidences abound, but are never really resolved: three prisoners, set against other prisoners making a huge Vesak lantern for an upcoming State Festival, recount their stories to each other.

I wouldn’t dream of revealing what follows next (in case the producers decide to stage it elsewhere), but I will say this: that hyperlinked structure ended up projecting the one quality of the visual arts (theatre and cinema included) I have come to adore, namely its ability to keep the audience informed of coincidences the characters are ignorant of. Coupled with a Malini Bulathsinhala song aired whenever Vesak is around the corner, I felt it to be refreshingly contemporary, though the ending was too predictable, rushed, and jerky to merit the praise everything leading up to it got.

Methodist College next dished out a production that couldn’t have been more different to what preceded it. “I Know You” was primarily verbal. The Methodist production (“TTYL”), by contrast, was more visual, subsisting on a daring technique: the disassociation of speech from performance. “TTYL” delved into the alienation of social media, so such a disassociation was called for. I was hence enthralled by their synchronisation of sound and image, of music and movement, and of humour and seriousness. For me, the triumph here was with the mode of presentation, pricked at by a rather overworked ending.

The St Peter’s College production was less nuanced, though almost as defiant. “Get a Grip” revealed the underside of the bully and the bullied, interspersed with monologues which were aware of their own hollowness. At one point, the “bully” abandoned his abusiveness and resorted to a soliloquy which seemed to channel Hamlet and James Dean. The skit’s depiction of a rather pertinent theme, however, while underscored solidly, revealed its own deficiencies: try as I might, I could not picture the bully and the bullied, even with all those ballet-like transitions, beyond the stereotypes they were framed against.

Ed Monk’s “Booby Trap”, an ideological tract that reveals the kind of middle-class liberalism that drives the mainstream theatre of America and (it seems) the English theatre of Lionel Wendt, was next in line. Whatever my sentiments towards the story may be, however, I was awed by St Bridget’s Convent’s take on it (this was the only non-original skit at Drama Comp). Briefly and pithily, it reveals to the audience, in the space of half an hour, the memories and the fantasies of a soldier who has sat on an anti-personnel mine (APM). This was polyphonic enough. With a cast of young women playing men and women who behave like men, the players supplemented that polyphonic quality even more with an androgynous streak.

But then, owing to the fact that it was both powerful and out of the range of experience of the players, it looked over-rehearsed. The emotions didn’t flow: they seemed sketched out through a series of invisible cues. The playing didn’t just add up, barring the young lady playing the protagonist-soldier, Pete Galen. There is a sense of apparentness, of a storm distilling the surface, in the original script, which did not come off here. Everything seemed too neat, in other words. The audience were moved, but not enough. There was humanity and affirmation of humanity, but not enough.

Incidentally, the merits and demerits of these productions congealed to the preferences of the judges (Ruwanthi de Chickera, Shanuki de Alwis, Thushara Hettihamu, and Jake Oorloff), all of which were driven by their fondness for spontaneity over contrivance. “Theatre isn’t just about adapting books,” Shanuki observed at one point. Apt, since she was speaking about the Methodist production (which wasn’t an adaptation at all, rather a visual distillation of contemporary angst).

Before the show, I heard an old lady (one of those grandaunts who come to see their grandnephews and grandnieces organise an event like this) praise the organisers and their school to the skies. Drama Comp on that count was as much about drama as it was about a set of youngsters from an institution, so credit is due to both. And as the two chairpersons of the show (Nilesh Wijesekera and Shalem Sumanthiran) informed us in their souvenir message (barring those obligatory clichés highlighting how much the attention they got from us means to them), “What we remember... [are] the paappu fights, dog and bone at Racecourse, [and the] long bonding sessions the committee has, more than the actual work we did.”

But then it was that “actual work” which caught, pushed, and chastened me. That’s natural, since I try not to confuse the work with the background of the organisers, the latter of which I am indifferent to (since it tends to colour my judgments). Not surprisingly, therefore, that is how Drama Comp came out successfully, for me and (I suspect) for everyone else who thronged the Wendt that night.

I admit that I am frustrated by the Sri Lankan theatre. The Sinhala theatre hides behind a barrage of clichés, metaphors, and symbols. The English theatre revels in a sense of aesthete refinement that comes out in school productions. Such productions are often painfully unaware of their own ideological limitations, which are sadly perpetuated by an esoteric circle of critics, relatives, and well-wishers.

But then that was why I was happy at the final results: not only was the Methodist College production the winner, but my favourite male performance (Lakshitha Edirisinghe, who intrigued me with his frown and his sour rage as Channa, the father in “I Know You”) and female performance (Thakshila Ellawala as Pete Galen in “Booby Trap”) were recognised as well. These were high points in an event that could have easily deteriorated with the self-praising, self-perpetuating thespian culture rooted in Colombo 7. It did not, thankfully, a fact that has as much to do with the organisation as it does with the productions.

I liked Drama Comp, consequently. I liked the acting and the actors. I liked the way it was organised and the fact that the organisers went that extra mile to get us hooked on to English theatre. Barring a few mistakes in the souvenir and the fact that the entire event dragged on until almost midnight, there was really nothing in it that one could censure. So yes, I liked it. Enough for me to say “Next year I want more!”

Photos courtesy of the Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: Ceylon Today HELLO, May 21 2017