In the grip of grim institutionalism | Sunday Observer

In the grip of grim institutionalism

11 December, 2016

On 29 March, at the Lionel Wendt, Buddhika Damayantha debuted 6457 (Sixty Four Fifty Seven) a Sinhala translation of the late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse. 6457 is a translation by Damayantha, who also directed the play and acts in it. The performance was commendable and delivered by a cast of seasoned thespians that comprised, Mahendra Weeraratne, Arunodh Wijesinghe, Sumith Rathnayake, Rohan Wijethunge, Oshadie Gunasekera, Sampath Thennakoon, and Buddhika Damayantha.

In keeping with the grimness of the story which unfolds in a state run sanatorium, with an administration that has dubiousness written all over it, Damayantha’s production had schemes of colours, costumes, visages and verbal tones that created an almost organic bleakness to permeate every dimension of the stage. Kapila Kithsiri must be commended for his handling of lighting in this production. Lighting played an effective part in scenes where certain characters were put through a ‘treatment’ that includes electric shock therapy. The strobe light effect under which the figure strapped to a chair winced, created a strong visual impression of how torturous the whole process was.

Stagecraft was not executed in the realist mode as Chekhovian theatre or in the likeness of a play by Ibsen or Strindberg, but showed stage space utilized to depict different parts of the institution which were designed to present spaces of realist theatre sets.

When taking into account how the thickness of a ‘Gordian knot like state bureaucracy’ can become an opaque buffer that disallows accountability or transparency of the state to the public, I believe, this play carries an element of the ‘Kafkaesque’ (thematic elements that define the works of the novelist Franz Kafka) as well as a facet of ‘the Orwellian’ (thematic elements that define the outlooks and politics found in the fiction of George Orwell) to bring out how the state resorts to enslave the minds of the people and stamp out dissent through its institutional machinery.

As a translation of Pinter’s English play titled The Hothouse, it is interesting to note that Damayantha presents a title that becomes eponymous of the inmate referred to as ‘6457’ who has died and whose death is tainted with suspicion. All inmates in the play are referred to by numbers and none have any stage presence. Within the context of the action that unfolds on stage the ‘patients’ don’t exist. The story thus presents the fate of anonymity that prisoners of oppressive institutionalism are condemned to, as they are subjected to erasure of individuality and identity.