Reading beyond the veils of witchery: A review of the play Mayabandana | Sunday Observer

Reading beyond the veils of witchery: A review of the play Mayabandana

8 July, 2018

The winner of the award for Best Drama at this year’s State Drama Festival was a Sinhala translation of Pulitzer Prize winning U.S. playwright Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. Titled ‘Mayabandana’ it is a translation by Gamini Viyangoda directed by Ushan Perera.

Miller’s The Crucible is a play written in the early 1950s and is based on historical events that happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692-1693, which was a 17th century English settlement along the east coast of North America that gained notoriety for what are called the ‘Salem Witch Trials’ where people were punished with death for the alleged practice of witchcraft.

When Miller wrote his play it had a timely critical message directed at the climate prevalent in the U.S. at the time, when ‘political witch hunting’ was going strong to eradicate communist activities from the States. What is noteworthy is that the play is a parable of how the fear over Satanism can be compared to the fear over communism in the U.S at the time. Today, Miller’s The Crucible is regarded as a central work in the canon of American drama. It is a strong critique of how ‘fear mongering’ can be a deadly political tool. And further it casts a strong critical look at manmade systems of justice that purport to uphold what is good, right, and moral as perceived in a country that carries its Christian ethos in the words –‘In God We Trust’.

On June 16, ‘Mayabandana’ was staged for theatregoers on the boards of the Lionel Wendt. And seated under the gentle darkness of the Wendt occupying seat Q-7 yours truly was the reviewer for the Sunday Observer. The show had a fair audience, although regrettably not a full house. Among the esteemed dignitaries present in the audience was the current head of the country’s judiciary, The Hon Chief Justice Priyasath Dep PC, whom I noticed was seated next to the translator of Mayabandana.

The title of this Sinhala translation of Miller’s play refers to the witchcraft element in the story. Although that element is essential to the milieu brought out by the play it is not the sole tenet that defines Miller’s story, and the word ‘crucible’ is not synonymous with witchcraft. The word ‘crucible’ is in one form a word for a container in which metals can be melted. It is also a term for a redefined ‘state of being’ between different parties or elements that may be found as a ‘mergence’ due to severe conditions that forge new outcomes.

The title Miller gave his play can therefore refer more to the ‘trial’ and the events connected with the process of persecution and prosecution driven by the townspeople, the arms of state and the Christian clergy.

While admitting I cannot claim to be in a position to give a Sinhala word that would be closer to the intention behind Miller’s choice of title for his play and thereby offer a more direct or accurate translation of the word ‘crucible’, it should also be noted that Viyangoda’s choice of title –Mayabandana is not a ‘translation’ of Miller’s title. However Viyangoda in his choice of title for his Sinhala translation has focused on the central element that is ostensibly visible and externally graspable to the viewer. To a Sri Lankan audience, unaware of the political climate in which Miller wrote his play, the underlying significance of the word ‘crucible’ doesn’t practically apply. I do not say this with any hint of disparage in any way. It is simply my observation of how this play as a cultural product can make sense to a present day Sri Lankan viewer far removed from the communist witch hunts that ruptured the fabric of civilian life in the U.S of the 1950s.

The stagecraft designed for this production was not of the Chekhovian realist style but more a minimalist method. It served the purpose well although given the fact that the approach was not of a strict realist theatre motif, the use of lights and lighting effects could have been more adventurously explored to heighten the feeling of ‘terror’ or ‘eeriness’ when opportunity presents itself in the course of the narrative. There were missed opportunities in my opinion to exploit scenes to create ‘spectacular theatre’.

If the director’s counterargument would be that the goal was to produce a more true to life scenario on the boards that would seem more credible to the audience, I would simply point to the fact that the scheme of stagecraft, although was tastefully done, was not by any means an element that lends to create a true to life visual dimension.

While costumes and makeup were commendably done I cannot say that the cast of players on stage presented a visible symmetry of acting talent. I do not by any means say there was any actor on stage who was a blatant let down to the overall performance. In general, I would say, they all ‘pulled off’ their parts, but the cast did not clearly form a common range of acting skills and experience.

Understandably, an ensemble will consist of players of different ranges, and all a director can hope to do is cast his players to minimise an obvious gap in performance skills when they play side by side. And in this regard I would say Perera as the director, has done a decent job which has room for improvement, yet. On that note I must also say the opening of the play did not show a moment that made a strong impression. Seasoned actor of the stage and screen Prasannajith Abeysuriya who plays the role of Rev. Parris who speaks the opening lines in the show could have done better.

Some aspects of the translation that I made mental notes of that evening was how dialogue had certain ‘misfit’ elements not congruous with presenting a play that visibly represents more older times from another country through the medium of Sinhala. Some of the characters used the English word ‘mister’ in their dialogue at times when referring to and addressing adult townsmen.

What was the reason for the script of this Sinhala translation of an English play, to ‘code-mix’ an English word, into what is otherwise a Sinhala dialogue? Could not the Sinhala word ‘mahaththaya’ have been a suitable equivalent? The use of ‘mister’ sparked what ‘sounded’ a touch of modernity in resonance with the type of Sinhala speech one encounters practically in Sri Lanka, today. However, in trying to gauge what could be Viyangoda’s reason to use ‘mister’ I propound that it could be that the word ‘mahaththaya’ may not always have the same degree of social ‘equality’ believed to be signified by the word ‘mister’. The word ‘mahaththaya’, to my understanding may infer or enforce, practically speaking, in Sri Lankan society, a sense of hierarchism.

The use of the word ‘suddho’ the colloquial Sinhala term for white westerners also made an appearance at one instance. The scene concerned is I believe where the differentiation is made between white Americans and the characters who are black slaves in the service of some townspeople. The word ‘suddho’ is exclusively rooted in the Sinhala ethos of how a ‘white man’ is perceived in the Sri Lankan psyche.

This was a clear indication of a Sinhala mindset at work in ‘characterising the translation’. In opting to use ‘suddho’ instead of ‘sudu minissu’ or ‘sudu aya’ (white people) Viyangoda strayed from observing a more technically sound approach to translating the text. Although it may be argued (albeit with remote chance) that such an inclusion of phrase/term makes it seem more like a play that is ‘closer to home’, my contention is that a Sinhala ‘translation’, and not an ‘adaptation’, of The Crucible cannot in anyway pass for a play that is anything but a foreign stage play conveyed through the medium of the Sinhala language which should situate it as the cultural product that it is.

A similar culturally displaced word that came out in the play which takes the form of an adaptive element is ‘Mohini’. The all too well known malevolent female spectre of Sri Lankan lore certainly didn’t mark a presence in Viyangoda’s translation as specifically identified in our culture. The term evinced itself more as a ‘convenience’ resorted to in order to establish the idea of a female demonic spirit that possessed women.

It is ironic that although the words ‘suddho’ and ‘Mohini’ are very much Sinhala in essence and character, they in my opinion bring more incongruity, in comparison to an English word like ‘mister’, into this Sinhala translation of an American play. Unlike an ‘adaptation’, a ‘translation’ of a text, in my opinion and understanding, has a duty to perform to its audience to convey as near as possible an experience of a work of art from a foreign culture. ‘Suddho’ and ‘Mohini’ in my opinion impede that duty of the text to the Sinhala audience.

Another phrase that caught my attention was how the admission by John Proctor that he committed adultery with Abigail Williams is stated as, ‘Mang eyawa gaththa’. It is a verbatim translation of the English phrase ‘I took her’. That was the instant impression I got. Although the idea was conveyed without confusion, I wonder if I may be wrong in venturing to say that the more readily understood phrase as per Sinhala dialectical use would be ‘Mang eya samaga hitiya’ which would directly translate to English as –‘I was with her’ and construe what in common parlance would mean – ‘I laid with her’.

A story that speaks of how fear mongering among people susceptible to panic and hysteria can be a weapon for personal vengeance as well as a tool for political ends, ‘Mayabandana’ offers a critical look at how myth and superstition can hold powerful sway over people as well as the State. I suspect the decision behind Viyangoda and Perera to stage a translation of Miller’s The Crucible was meant to resonate with liberal political beliefs which seek to educate the people to move away from olden beliefs and practices with no scientific merit that would seem out of place with modern society.

Mayabandana can therefore be seen as a statement through the art of theatre, from the liberal left to add voice against how febrile religiosity can hinder the gradual creation of a multicultural cosmopolitan society.