Udayasiri Wickremaratne has a penchant for wit and wordplay which his playwriting evinces when they take the form of theatre on the boards. His first notable success in theatre - Suddek Oba Amathai (A White man Addresses You) is ample testimony. Words are his missiles launched from the battleship called the theatre into the warzone called contemporary society. Wickremaratne’s theatre is one that seeks to woo his audience through comedy and seduce through laughter to ponder upon what makes society a laughing stock locked in a group laugh at itself. Wickremaratne’s craft is political. And it seeks to kindle laugher in a way to show that Sri Lankans as a people are nearing the day we will laugh so hard that we will choke to death in mid-laugh.
‘361’ or as it is titled in Sinhala - Thunsiya Heta Eka is Wickremaratne’s latest stage play which opened on the evening of 28 January under the gentle darkness of the Lumbini theatre.
The program card distributed on that opening night had on it as a slogan, reflecting the core of the play, what can be translated to English as - ‘Not media freedom, but the struggle for freedom from the media.’ ‘361’ launches what is arguably a scathing attack on the meaningless media consumerism that keeps the people locked in distractions that numb their sense of critical thinking and prevent seeing the true picture of deception that is being played out by our so called elected leaders.
Gihan Fernando who plays the lead male, a politico donned in white, says that politics is the one activity that involves ‘acting’; asserting politics is the profession of actors and no other performance art really involves any acting. Mainstream politics in Sri Lanka pales the most talented of screen and stage acting. After all politics is about a full time acting job that covers everything in a scope of 360 degrees, or perhaps even one degree further!
The action unfolds as the political talk show 361 (which may sound like a spoof of the popular TV talk show - 360 which is called in Sinhala Thunsiya Heta) is telecast, featuring an unnamed politician who is simply referred to/addressed as ‘methithuma’. The onscreen, off screen nonsense, and the ‘sense’ that is sought to be made out of it plays out to show that what we have in our country is a media circus that has broken the fourth wall so effectively that the circus allows ‘participatory clowning’ from certain members of the public which reinforces the thought that in this ‘electoral democracy’ we get the ‘leaders’ we deserve.
Andy Warhol the celebrated American mixed media artist whose roots are in advertisement illustration is reportedly responsible for the phrase - ‘15 minutes of fame’ which he said everyone in the future will have, due to the widespread of electronic media. If Warhol only lived to see the 21st century with all its digital media democratisation of celeb status he would have perhaps felt ‘15 seconds’ would do. I say so because in this age of increasing audience/public participatory mass media gimmicks in the broader context of entertainment, even 15 seconds will do for some, as their moment in the sun.
Due to the ever increasing hyper pace of ‘media traffic’ there is a decreasing ‘attention span’ among people on issues and phenomena whittling down the ‘fame status’ to fleeting seconds, and ‘measuring in minutes’ may soon become a thing of the past.
The nonsensical callers who participate in the ‘show’ shown as 361, symbolise those who seek their fleeting albeit moment of fame. To exist in the eyes (or ears) of the public via mass media seems to be a goal in life for some.
The ‘superstar culture’ created by TV stations based on musical talent contests have contributed dizzily in galvanizing a ‘fame dream’ among the public who have begun to worship the media and the onscreen faces. This phenomenon too is cynically dealt with in this play.
Broadcasters are admired in many ways by their audience. One of the callers on 361 urges the female TV show host played by Umayangana Wickramasinghe, to reveal her alma mater so that perhaps parents who dream of seeing their children become talented broadcasters like her may send their children to that school to realise those ‘media dreams’. The assumption would be that she attended a prominent highly resourced school that many vie for their children to attend.
The reason for her evasion to answer the question is indicated towards the end when the last caller calls amid the panic that erupt onset.
This last caller calling from the small hilly town of Ukuwela identifies herself as Amma. The TV broadcaster at first fails to recognise the caller, struggling to recompose herself, assumes the caller’s ‘name’ is ‘Amma’. Upon realising that it is in fact her mother she breaks down, revealing that she is fed up with the meaninglessness that enmeshes her life.
What is made the subject of criticism in 361 is not merely the culture of political talk shows and TV news that are luring the public to be glued to duplicitous dialogue purporting solution searches for national issues. 361 critiques today’s local TV culture in general.
Both TV advertisements and trailers of teledramas that find airtime during commercial breaks enter the scope of the performance in 361. Wickremaratne thus does not hold back punches. It is the system as a whole that he seeks to satirise.
Often we encounter sarcasm as a peaceful retaliation to what is wrong and improper. Sarcasm is seen as something of a tool for social criticism. Those retorts are generally applauded and laughter too is bound to it. Sarcasm is a means of highlighting the wrong. But sarcasm is not a solution in itself, which not all seem to grasp. As a work that abounds with laughter riding on sarcasm that mocks the ‘mindlessly mediatised’ society we have become, the end however delivers a much more direct sting that advocates to the audience (albeit with a dose of sarcasm) what the solution ought to be.
For those who may cry this as ‘prescriptive’, I say, for our people the mere highlighting of the malady hardly ever leads to a remedy. The advocacy at the very end to me seems like the final degree that adds to the full circle, making things turn 361.
I urge you dear readers whether you are a regular theatregoer or not to watch this stage play. 361 should be watched by all Sri Lankans, especially the younger generation that will soon take the reigns as adults of tomorrow. I dare Wickremaratne and the show promoters of 361to do ticket giveaways for future shows via popular radio stations that play to the tastes and tunes of that segment of Sri Lanka that embraces ditzy superficial sophistication promoted by certain mass media to create a brown bimbo and plastic Rambo culture among our youth. It is high time that the people in this country realise that the laughter they are being lulled into through the consumerist mass media matrix will soon choke the life out of them.