Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A long way from home: Where our local theatre is

The first of a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

I go to the Wendt for the same reason that I go to the Regal, the Majestic, the Savoy, and closer to my hometown, the Tower in Moratuwa: a new experience, a new way of assessing myself and my relationship to the world I live in and the people I live with. What I go for is, unfortunately enough, not what I get, simply because our young playwrights, like our young filmmakers, are caught in a crevice between what their immediate ancestors did and what those among them who are still alive are doing. They’re afraid of trying something new, even though they’re young, because they believe that what is new isn’t necessarily what works. I would say this is what drives both English and Sinhala theatre, and I would say it’s especially truer of the latter.

The theatre works on self-dramatisation, self-consciousness. In a movie you know the actors you are watching are impersonating their characters, whether or not they are true to those characters (who may be fictional or real, like Kamal Addaraarachchi as Rohana Wijeweera). In the theatre this consciousness of the falsification that goes into what you see is doubled: you are not only aware of the impersonation but you are also aware of the actors’ own awareness of it. Sri Lanka is a curious case: our film industry has always depended for its reserve of actors, scriptwriters, and even directors on our theatre. Things have changed a little, of course.

If you peruse the latest Sinhala play at the Borella YMBA, you are bound to come across a political satire or a rehashed production of Sinhabahu or Maname or Nari Bana. If you peruse the latest English play, predominantly at the Wendt but occasionally at the Punchi Theatre, you are bound to come across a musical or a serious production about ideas. The irony here, of course, is that on its own terms the Sinhala theatre has embrace the serious production about ideas more bravely than its English counterpart; it has a wider audience, it caters to a more diverse social milieu, and it isn’t cut off from those who go to the Lumbini instead of the Wendt, which, as I noted in my review of Drama Comp several months ago, panders to the English intelligentsia. This is not a sketch of that intelligentsia or its relationship to our theatre, rather the first of several articles exploring where that local theatre is, at present.

Our plays, English or Sinhala or Tamil, are reflected in our school productions: what’s good, bad, and mediocre about them all starts in the classroom, the school workshop, and the various rehearsals that go into such productions. Right down from the choice of subject-matter to the attitude of the producer and the cast to that subject-matter, they are indicative of what their elders like to go for. This is especially true of the English theatre, but also true of its Sinhala counterpart, at the hall or in our classrooms.

English school productions like to play it safe, in itself not a bad thing since we all, at the end of the day, like to play it safe with any art form. In four cases out of five they will be self-brooding and consciously constrained, in terms of themes and in terms of how those themes are expressed and projected. I say four out of five based on what I have seen at drama competitions at the Wendt, including Drama Comp, where only one of the five items staged (the Methodist College production, “TTYL”) was exuberant and liberating in the truest sense of those terms. (The fact that it won, as I expected, testified to this.) Because of the conservative streak of the middle class, who patronise the Wendt, the conventional English school production is about a protagonist trying to get out; he or she is so closeted that the entire play hinges on whether he or she can properly get out. Sometimes these characters do. For the most, though, they don’t.

The serious play about serious ideas isn’t the preserve of the Wendt in this sense, however; it has been exploited in far more creative ways at the Lumbini, the Borella YMBA, and the Punchi. What these productions lack, more often than not and with the exception of experienced movers like Udayasiri Wickramaratne and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and, to a considerable extent, Rajitha Dissanayake, is craftsmanship, the dazzling technical mastery that the Wendt, with its nostalgically archaic proscenium and aisle, exudes night after night. And that’s exactly what our elders and our children want from the conventional English play: a conventionally serious production that plays on conventional themes and resorts to conventional tricks. Again, this goes back to the safe zone I pointed out earlier, the conservative streak of the Wendites: they want to play it safe because they are used to playing it safe.

These audiences have the cake and eat it too: they watch, with unabated interest, what unfolds in front of their eyes (be it tragedy, or tragedy reworked as farce), with the comfort of knowing that they can return to their own lives, their own place in the sun, after the production is done or dusted. “5,000 enforced disappearances?” a lady asked on her way out of the Wendt of her friend, who was as shocked as she was, after the curtain closed on Ruwanthi de Chickera’s “Dear Children, Sincerely”, which I thought was befittingly sincere in its intentions, though not in the way it set about articulating those intentions. (The audiences laughed when they should have reflected, as when an old lady who remembered the 1962 coup against the government mused on 1956 and the horde of vernacular teachers who taught their students that eggs were hatched by thunder.)

I have no doubt that the lady in question, who was far away from me and who unlike me had a car and a driver to take her and her friend home (we poor freelancers have to do with Ubers and PickMes), was genuinely horrified at what she heard towards the end of Ruwanthi’s play. But that sense of horrified comprehension, sooner or later, congeals into apathy and complacency. Wendites want to be stupefied and horrified, as horrified as their neighbours and colleagues, which is why they want a serious play, a serious production, formally conservative no matter how liberating it may appear to be.

This strange blend of formal conservatism and facile novelty is what makes for much of the English theatre, our English theatre, even in our schools, ironic considering that while its Sinhala counterpart has dabbled in Pirandello (Sugathapala de Silva), Beckett (Dharmasena Pathiraja), Strindberg (Premaranjith Tilakaratne), and GarcĂ­a Lorca (Gunasena Galappaththy), its own practitioners are more content with Shakespeare, Hugo, Shaw, and Verne. Part of the reason why these playwrights are resorted to so frequently is that they are predictable: you know how a Shaw or a Hugo story will end, but you don’t know how a Pirandello or a Beckett will, because if you did, that would defeat the purpose of seeing them. These plays are not meant to be digested immediately, which is why they are truly, madly, honestly serious.

Those who opt for Pirandello and Beckett and Strindberg today may not have fully understood the undercurrents of their work and the thinking that drove their work, which is why most modern renditions of these plays are clumsily handled. Such adaptations lack a proper skeleton and body but they have heart, enough and more of it. The veterans who are still with us – Jayantha Chandrasiri, Rajitha, even Udayasiri – are not really clumsy this way, but their new work, perhaps because their cast and crew are not up to the task of translating their vision and outlook to their audiences, is dissimilar to their old work.

That’s why I believe the Sinhala theatre has deteriorated and is deteriorating: the producers don’t boast of the high production values their counterparts in the English theatre do, while their young descendants meekly study them and even revere them but opt, with despairing frequency, for the routine comedic skit and political satire. I asked a student, recently, who was active in his school’s (Sinhala) drama society as to what kind of plays he liked. He mentioned these satires, adding, “But I’d like to try something new, something untried.” I asked him to explain, and he replied, “A serious comedy that gets out laughs while dwelling on a serious idea and theme.”

A comedy that dwells on serious ideas and themes is pretty much like a tragedy that makes you laugh: it’s a confusion of genre and identity, and our Sinhala playwrights haven’t exactly fared badly with them. For the record, they’ve fared even better than their English-speaking counterparts, because the roots of our theatre go back to the kolama and the sanniya, later to be transformed into the nadagama and the nurtiya through our encounters with the Parsi and Indian melodrama. So yes, we KNOW how to laugh.

The fact that our schoolboys prefer the vikata to the thaathvika, while preferring the lokadharmaya to the natyadharmaya, indicates that they are as confused, ecstatically, as the mode of the theatre they’re interested in. It’s rather encouraging in a way, but is it enough? The answer to that requires an extensive sketch of how Sinhala drama is sustained in our schools. I will get to that topic next week. For now, however, I am done.

Photos courtesy of: The Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 3 2017