A musical with sharp political tones A review of Rag, The Musical | Sunday Observer

A musical with sharp political tones A review of Rag, The Musical

Versatile Sri Lankan theatre practitioner Jehan Aloysius who has distinguished himself as actor, director and playwright, brought back to the boards his acclaimed theatrical magnum opus – Rag, The Musical, for a show run from November 2 --5. Yours truly sat under the gentle darkness at the Wendt on opening night to witness a work of great passion and theatrical artistry released for Lankan theatre by a culmination of a host of talent marshalled by the vision of Aloysius.

Rag, The Musical, is a work of musical theatre written, directed and choreographed by Aloysius who bears credit for both its original music and the music score. The music was performed by Dr. Avanti Perera and the choral arrangements were by Deshan Cooray and Eshantha Peiris. One of the first impressions this stage play creates is the wealth of diverse talent committed to achieve it as a work pulsating with colour, form, sound and motion. Works of this calibre certainly cannot come to life if not for the generosity of corporate sponsors, and thus, a salute and applause are very much due to the numerous sponsors of this project.

Rag, The Musical, has at its core the theme of the brutality of ragging in the university culture which is prevalent even today (although not necessarily in all universities and not in the scale shown in the play) while also embedded in its veins is the depiction of how university life also has its joyful aspects, and fighting to preserve the right for all to enjoy campus life is something worth fighting for.

The free education system of our country gradually transpired to make university education a forte for leftism, and thereby, be interpreted as very much an institutional privilege of the economically underprivileged. Asserted thus to an extent of creating an unofficial excluding of social segments that are urban, and comparatively better off compared to the rural economically challenged segments in the country. The leftist dogma prevalent today in the university culture can brew near militant mindsets to insinuate free university education as the right of the poor man more than a common right for all.

Heady debate

The subtext of left wing driven ‘free education protectionism’ is that it is the greater right of the poor man and a lesser right (at best) of the urban middle class. It is class warfare of a different scale.

The principal arsenal is the ‘rag’, and the principle determining inclusivity or ostracism from mainstream campus life is how compliant or resistant one becomes to the rag. Aloysius brings out a heady debate on this matter through theatrical craft, using music, song, dance and ‘story’ as his tools. One can only conjecture how the far left would respond to a play such as Rag, The Musical.

Leftism in the broader university culture is not presented simply as a counter force to the right wing, but as the given continuum that purports to manifest on campus something of an embryonic exegesis of whatever doctrine is said to show the road to ‘revolution’.

Despite the fact that the protagonists in this play show that their goal is a nonpartisan stance at first, as opposed to setting up an adversarial polarity in the spectrum of campus politics, Rag, The Musical may very well be branded the work of a ‘reactionary’; a right wing attack to the status quo prevalent in campus culture by militant leftism that calls for the blood of the economically privileged to realize a revolution for ‘equality’.

The legendary words of the Irish statesman Edmund Burke –“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” comes out sharply in this play.

But, at what cost must one attempt to realize what is good, and proactively resist what is wrong? Is it worth if it be at the cost of one’s life? Or is that cost fully acceptable if one adheres to what Mussolini advocated as “Better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”.

Rag, The Musical may not necessarily have the answer to that question. But it offers a dynamic story with impactful poignancy, especially, towards the end, with the deaths of innocents who just wanted to be themselves, and be allowed the dignity to enjoy their undergrad days and celebrate their youth.

Aloysius has included some key elements that portray significant junctures in campus life albeit schematized in the workings of a musical, which may not of course deliver the exact feel of how things actually unfold on campus.

Those elements weave together a facet of what the Lankan campus experience would contain despite the looming anxiety of ragging. ‘Bucketing’ or ‘bucket eka’ (‘the bucket’) as per campus parlance, is an annual ritual that officially marks the end of the ragging season in the freshmen year. (And its ‘counteraction’ is that the ‘freshers’ who get bucketed at the end of their first year, by customary right, get to bucket the seniors on the day of the latter’s final year batch photo!

The bucket signposts that you enter the fold with a ‘campus baptismal’ and leave with one as well!). Campus romances and consequent heartaches are cornerstone undergrad experiences. And, for those in the Faculty of Arts watching stage plays written, directed and produced by fellow undergrads is pretty much a certainty. As an alumnus of the Colombo Varsity’s Arts Faculty I can vouch for that! I in fact mention the pool of playwrights cum directors who displayed their talents from my batch, in my review of the Sinhala play ‘Meya thuwakkuwak novey’ (This is Not a Gun) written and directed by Chamila Priyanka (published in the Sunday Observer of September 21, 2014).

Aloysius who himself is a graduate of the Colombo varsity’s Arts Faculty depicts this campus experience with a play within the play.

The comically played, yet, tragically themed story of ‘Kanchanamala and Somadasa’ is central in Rag, The Musical, functioning in several ways as a device in the story. It is in one respect a key comic relief.

And, as the audience in the Wendt laughed heartily to this scenario I wondered if it was a facet of Colombo centric snobbery that makes rural names and patently village based buffoonery a sure ticket to roaring laughter. ‘Kanchanamala and Somadasa’ is after all presented as a work by the character Thomas, a boy from a leading Colombo school.

But then, Aloysius cannot be declared guilty of conspiring to make the Sinhala villager look idiotic through this device in his play, since using the ‘backward villager’ as a basis for (ridicule and) comedy is very much a part of the postcolonial baggage in our country.

What the device of ‘Kanchanamala and Somadasa’ lend to the principal storyline is that it marks the turning point for brutal violence to burst out and trigger the events that lead the protagonists who were passive, to turn ‘responsive’ to the insufferable injustice being done them by the relentless raggers. Post ‘Kanchanamala and Somadasa’ things go south, beyond retraction.

What the end depicts is a conclusion with reconciliation that is more idealistic than realistic. But then, I see this work by Aloysius as one that works on a symbolic level. It doesn’t purport to unravel a practicable solution to a continuing problem.

And in creating a work that seeks to entertain its audience while drawing attention to the issue and what may ideally be realized, Aloysius has achieved a tremendous artistic feat. The choreography of this play is astounding and drives forward with layers of rhythm and motion. The vigour, the acrobatics, the sheer dynamism and vibrancy creates a lasting impression on the viewer. The costumes and stage sets were certainly eye catching.

The acting talent that was onstage was not fully symmetrical, but I cannot say the ensemble had anyone who didn’t deliver a satisfying job. A noteworthy facet of this production of Rag, The Musical is that it set the stage for some talented greenhorns to showcase their thespian prowess. Dion Nanayakkara as Joseph, Julian Anderson as Thomas, and Keminda Heethawaka Arachchi as Rukmal deserve special mention.

Memorable performance

They proved themselves actors as well as singers in this production. Dushyantha Hettiarachchi as Harsha, one of the antagonists, played his character commendably. Rock musician Suresh de Silva of Stigmata fame made his presence felt amply, exuding menace as Peter the chief antagonist. Nimaya Harris delivered a memorable performance in her portrayal of Michelle.

Her character development from a self conscious fresher to a very self confident undergrad was noticeable. Another appreciable aspect that stood out of this young actress, who is of English paternal roots, is that her enunciation was not of an ‘elocutionary mould’ but very much the unaccented Sri Lankan pronunciation of urban natural bilinguals. I would say from among those who did lead roles in this production, Harris’s acting appeared the most natural. A novelty to celebrate, Rag, The Musical won over its audience on opening night with a standing ovation. And I wholeheartedly offer my applause to Aloysius and his entire team who brought to life a praiseworthy production of an original work of Sri Lankan theatre. 

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