The Gabble of a Dishevelled Protest | Sunday Observer

The Gabble of a Dishevelled Protest

21 January, 2018

Anandadrama has proven over the course of about five years or so that it has within its fold a commendable vein for originality, a feature much needed in contemporary Sri Lankan theatre. Bilingualism is an urban reality in our country that can very well create a subgenre in theatre (and in that same sense for cinema as well) that distinguishes our country’s 21st century ‘hue and tone’ with respect to ‘art born of urbanism’. The very manner in which the title of the latest production by Anandadrama was printed on the admission ticket said much of how the Sinhala–English bilingual form was the ‘medium’ of this play. Picket Republic (the word picket was written in Sinhala on the ticket) by Anandadrama had a two day show run last December at the Wendt. Yours truly once again played the observant reviewer for the Sunday Observer from seat Q-7 catching the show on its closing night of December 17, 2017.

Political satire

Presented as ‘a timely political satire’, Picket Republic runs on parodying some of the visible currents of today’s political spectrum in Sri Lanka. Picketing as a medium of ‘public outcry’ over issues and agonies afflicting ‘the public’ is a thematic element in this play which shows that ‘the power of the people’ demonstrated through public protests/pickets is probably the greatest ‘real drama’ of all.

The politics behind protests is not something that is unknown to our populace. And perhaps, in present times (more than times of past) pickets and the ‘fourth estate’ that sensationalizes them, are very much part of the smokescreen that keeps the people distracted from the political tryst and consequent deals that chart the fate of a nation. This aspect of the play is central to understand how big a facade, the purported tool of the ‘people’s outcry’ is and how it aids the personal progress of opportunistic politicians.

Picket Republic was stated as a work of devised theatre and the credits for the play’s script and direction are shared between the trio Nishantha de Silva, Rajitha Hettiarachchi, and Ishtartha Wellaboda, while it was also acknowledged in the announcement of welcome before the commencement of the show, that some of the artistes too had contributed to the script in certain instances.

The practices of devised theatre therefore, were very much revealed as an ingrained aspect about the identity of this production. The stagecraft in this production bore semblances of serving improvisatory designs. While that is not necessarily the hallmark for devised theatre, the innovativeness proved efficient when scenes switched, and showed there was no realist mode of theatre at work in this stageplay, neither with stagecraft nor the storyline.

I will not go into detail about the storyline, and attempt elaborate summarizing in this review. The premise can be seen generally as set in a scenario where the regime of an ‘internationalist’ is trying to keep the ‘show going smoothly’ in the wake of the nationalist leader who was deposed, now readying to go hammer and tongs to reclaim power. To the people of today’s Sri Lanka a situation all too mundanely familiar. But, beneath the grand scenario are the struggles of the downtrodden, the disposable, the expendable, the faceless entities whose existence itself is meant to serve the needs and goals of the ones playing the drama of power. This is a work that has at the heart of its intentions the desire to present a strong social critique of our times. Many a segment in the social fabric that plays a role in the politics of the day is struck at. A novelty in this regard is the ‘activist cliques’ types garbed in the demeanour of pretentious ‘upper-class minded’ superficiality (though not necessarily always rooted in upper-class strata) and labelled, ‘coffee shop liberals’ by certain commentators of mainstream media. Sri Lankan theatre which satires many political collectives in society is yet to be seen delivering serious critique about this particular segment and their ‘brand’ of politics. However ineffective and token the voice of this particular clique shown in Picket Republic may be, their intention as per the context of the play, was portrayed as bona fide and not motivated by secret payroll incentives.

Although I do applaud bilingual works of theatre that reflect contemporary parlance of urban Sri Lanka with its gamut of code-mixing and code-switching, I did find the schema on which English dialogue being assigned to characters in this play, at times, a bit confusing.

Who is the type of person who would generally be found speaking (in) English in Sri Lanka?, is a matter that was blurred in this drama. At times it seemed like English was the medium to present the dialogue of characters that would (otherwise) have to be thought as ones who (generally) speak (in) Sinhala. And, at the same time there were characters whose lines were entirely in Sinhala. This is not the sort of stageplay that can be watched if you don’t know both, Sinhala and English. It is not an English play with a splash of Sinhala ‘spiciness’ here and there for laughs.

However, I must say I found the basis of assignment of Sinhala and English lines to characters to be a bit perplexing, unless one is to assume that the principal storyline’s characters were meant to deliver the story in English, and that the venture was not meant to be bilingual purely on the basis of ‘character identity’.

Generally commendable

While stagecraft, costumes, makeup, sound and lighting were generally commendable there was in my opinion a serious need for a revision of the script for effectiveness through brevity, and this may extend even with regard to some aspects of the narrative approach. We live in a mediatised world and there is no escaping that reality. Yet, the portrayal of the electronic media (especially TV) as the medium through which part of the storyline is revealed and banking on it for the narrative’s progression constantly, in my opinion, made a cliché claim a sizable portion of the performance.

One of the principal drawbacks in this show was that it showed directorial ineptness in weighing out the strengths within the pool of thespian talent at work, and crafting/developing the narrative to capitalize on the proven talent to enhance the element of entertainment. The directorial task of identifying what strengths must be put to optimum use when taking the story ‘from scripted words to live performance’ appeared unfulfilled.

A director needs to have a good understanding of where the strengths and weaknesses are within the ensemble of actors that will make the script come alive onstage through facial/bodily expression(s) and vocal/verbal expression(s). One shortfall in this regard was the under utilization of Nadun Dissanayake who was practically a cameo. A nother such underutilized talent in the production, in my opinion, was Charith Dissanayake.

The performance as a whole indicated to my senses that the script was not put through sufficient revision/scrutiny for cohesion. The progression of the narrative presented a storyline unfolding via a sketchy discursive.

While this quality may be seen as a symbolic reflection of the jagged nature of today’s socio-political scene, I cannot help but wonder, in all honesty, did the proverbial soup have too many hands stirring it?

The ending as it appeared to me, needed serious reworking if it was to achieve the empathy that was aimed at, when laughter is shattered with penetrating sombreness through sudden poignancy. The snap switch from riding a wave of hilarity (which was being built up with strong intention) to poignancy to give depth and meaning, revealing the darkness of the world that we wade through ‘laughing away’ is a tremendously tricky task.

It has much to do with how theatre becomes an art that connects with a live audience and drives the viewer’s sentiments and emotions. In the production of The Irish Curse directed by Gehan Blok (which I reviewed in the Sunday Observer issue of August 16, 2015) this manoeuvre was attempted, and was more successful than not, though not completely.

Imposed solemnity

The audience’s laughter didn’t get slammed to a halt en masse in a snap second. But, it did work. The ending in Picket Republic however, simply lacked sufficient transitory moments in the narrative’s progression to drive a sudden switch of emotion at the end, looking at the nature of the storyline. It was more of an imposed solemnity splashed on stage through lights and sound tactics.

Having watched Anandadrama’s Grease Yaka and Dracula (which I reviewed in the Sunday Observer issues of August 31, 2014 and September 6, 2015, respectively) I must admit Picket Republic was a disappointment. This was a play that sought to cover too wide a socio-political spectrum with too much script experimentation and inadequate directorial onus.

I do believe Anandadrama is capable of better productions. One of the main virtues of this production was that it showcased some notable greenhorn talent for the stage.

The seasoned and the newbie fusion pulled off a salutary weaving of young thespian skills from different age groups to create a fabric of performance which overall didn’t show striking discrepancies in acting proficiency.

And platforms by way of productions that provide new talent to be revealed are an important factor for a theatre culture to grow in society. A fact about Picket Republic, that must be commended.