Remoulding a story beyond history | Sunday Observer

Remoulding a story beyond history

Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre practitioner Namel Weeramuni marked a spectacular comeback earlier this month when ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ directed by Weeramuni, came alive on the boards of the Punchi Theatre to the delight of theatregoers. After directing a production of H.C.N de Lanerolle’s classic Ceylonese vintage comedy ‘The Dictator’ three years ago (which I reviewed in the November 8, 2015, issue of the Sunday Observer) the veteran returns with a work quite different to what he has offered theatregoers over the decades. ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ is a play co-written by Weeramuni and the renowned academician, Emeritus Prof of Sinhala, J. B. Dissanayake. Yours truly watched this play on October 5 seated in the gentle darkness of the Punchi Theatre.

This work was publicised as a Sinhala musical and performed in the unmistakable stylised form of operatic Sinhala theatre found in the ‘Sarachchandra classics’ ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu’. It is worth keeping in mind that both Weeramuni and Dissanayake who were batchmates at the Peradeniya University were students of the legendary doyen of Sinhala theatre Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra. It seems, a touch of Weeramuni’s guru has now manifested through the directorial craft applied to this particular work.

Performed in controlled stylised movements with choreographic aspects, the narrative of the play is of the classical ‘versified’ form where both dialogues and monologues are sung and not spoken. There is no average spoken language in the text of the play but dialogue delivered as song, and thus ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ appears more an opera rather than a ‘musical’, since the text of a musical play, in terms of western genre descriptions, may combine both song and spoken dialogue, while an opera is narrated entirely in song form.

‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ has a distinct touch of classicism in its approach, opening with a choral overture that ‘sets the stage’ for the theatrical story that is to unfold. Designed with a patently minimalist stagecraft the performance capitalises on the advantages of a bare stage for optimising choreographed movements enhanced in its attractiveness by music, lighting, makeup and wardrobe. The craft that Weeramuni presents is quite reminiscent of the thinking that has designed the moulds of ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu’.

The elegance of costumes in this production shows that much attention has been given to detail to ensure the visual aspect of the performance is made to standout and captivate the viewer. The costume department in this production must be especially commended for what has been achieved.

This work does not present the more conventional storyline of the Ramayanaya. It is therefore, likely to incur the disdain of hard-line Hindutva advocates who treat the narrative of Valmiki’s Ramayana as sacrosanct.

The production has benefitted immensely from the musicianship of maestros Jayantha Aravinda and Lionel Gunathileke who must be congratulated for the contribution made, ensuring the success of the work.

What can be noticed in terms of the form of the text, a combination of writing by Dissanayake and Weeramuni, is that the narrative shows distinctions of being by two authors. The latter part of the play shows a narrative in verse less stylised by rhyme.

There was to my ear a detectable ‘freer’ verse contrivance at times made musical through repetition of lines creating the impression of emphasis, unlike the more classically poetic diction heard in the first half of the play. This does not mean there was lesser value in the latter part of the text but a difference in form that showed two styles of lyrical craft.

The storyline in brief shows a mix of the mainstream conventional Valmiki version merged with a radically new twist towards the latter part. The war between Prince Rama and King Ravana results in the latter’s defeat and Prince Rama reclaims his wife, Princess Seetha, played commendably by Surangi Kosala. However, at the point where Seetha prepares to prove her purity to her husband by submitting herself to the ‘Agni Parikshawa’ or fire test, a turn that is absolutely incongruous with existing mainstream narratives of the Ramayana, takes place.

King Ravana, who it is revealed didn’t die in the war, arrives to save Seetha from the flames. His admission of love and devotion to her is professed but she replies in the midst of the animosity and imminent battle that is about to erupt between Rama and Ravana, that she will reciprocate the love professed to her by her former captor if he will prove his love to her by paying her the tribute of bringing her his mother’s heart. This heinous demand which shocks even her own husband, can only be seen as how in her efforts to be peacemaker, Seetha speaks an unspeakable thing risking her own image of goodness, simply to make Ravana revile her and abandon his quest to win her heart. It is thus a symbolic sacrifice of her own goodness that Seetha commits at that juncture in the narrative.

The end shows how King Ravana’s mother on her own volition sacrifices her life despite her son’s attempts to stop her, to provide the means for her son to win the love he dearly desires. It is thus an ending that speaks of the boundlessness of a mother’s love for her child and the lengths a mother will go to ensure her child’s happiness. This play which must be seen as work that unfolds an interesting scenario to understand legendary characters from different vantages created through a ‘semi-mainstream’ narrative may seem to pose more questions than answers about the ‘relationship angularities’ between Rama, Seetha and Ravana.

A pressing question in the Ramayana story is what was the true nature of the relationship between Seetha and Ravana and was the fire test justifiable? ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ infers that Seetha and Ravana may have had an intimate relationship during the years she was his regally cared for captive, and that Ravana’s intervention when she stepped into the flames was to save her from the fate that befalls a woman who was guilty of breaking sacred conjugal vows of fidelity to her husband. But it further complicates and compromises Seetha’s position as a woman who will not declare her love for Ravana with whom she seems to have had some degree of intimacy as she chooses to maintain a façade of virtue.

The only other way of saving Seetha’s dignity in this context of implications is that she was in fact truly faithful to her husband during her years of captivity and that Ravana was ignorant of the manner in which the fire test works. Or that he chose to display heroism as well as his genuine love for Seetha by carrying her out of the flames to save her by which he cunningly implies to Rama that he knew Seetha would not have survived the flames for the simple reason that she had not remained a chaste wife.

‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ in its portrayal of King Ravana, a quasi-mythical figure that looms in a virtual incomparable largeness in the collective Sinhala psyche, as perhaps the mightiest Lankan of all time, does a disservice to those who wish to imagine him as a man of undiminished unshakable masculinity. The fact that Ravana is lovelorn and pines for Seetha’s love doesn’t project him as the quintessential alpha male who bends to none. He is in fact a near slave to love. It is a more romantic twist that ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ brings through the art of theatre to the extensive discourse of the Ramayana, to humanise Ravana in a way that he too is vulnerable to emotional fragility.

I doubt the hardcore Ravana devotees in Sri Lanka will applaud this portrayal of him being made to appear a lovelorn man who couldn’t through his superlative masculinity evoke Seetha’s desire to willingly become his. This play is thus a work that offers a rather complex scheme for character analysis of legendary figures that loom large in the minds of people of both India and Sri Lanka.

One of the most captivating scenes to me was the ‘flight of Ravana’ when the King of Lanka takes Seetha captive and spirits her away through the skies aboard his ‘Danumonara Yanthraya’. With simply the use of lighting, sounds, music, smoke effects and rhythmic movements of artistes, the scene projected a choreographed depiction of King Ravana piloting his aircraft with his captive onboard. The choral players who symbolically morph into living props in various scenes formed the legendary flying vehicle of King Ravana who expressed his mastery in charioting through the sky.

Suggestion

A suggestion I would like to make regarding this scene is that its grandeur can perhaps be enhanced with further sound and lighting effects to add thunder and lightning to the scene. Another significant aspect is that when Seetha was abducted and being taken across the sky by King Ravana, the King of the vultures, the eagle like bird ‘Jatayu’ is said to have intervened attempting to prevent Princess Seetha being abducted. However, Jatayu was slain in the aerial clash that ensued. I wonder if that aspect was deliberately left out by Dissanayake and Weeramuni for it may have been a nonessential element that could have merely impeded the impression of the choreographic flow to give life to the ‘flight of Ravana.’

While I say that all the actors in the cast did a commendable job on stage, the actress who played the mother of King Ravana appeared somewhat young to be a mother to a man of the age that was visible in the actor who played the king of Lanka.

This is of course a reflection on the play’s casting and the directorial hand, not criticism of the actress herself. While the character of Hanuman was more symbolic and not integrally functional to the storyline, the character in terms of visual appearance and performance was well aligned with Sinhala thought and expectations.

He was convincingly yet tastefully and dignifiedly more simian than a robustly muscular warrior with a monkey face and tail as fitting the Indian conception, which of course rests on Hanuman’s godhood in the Hindu culture.

On the performance by Rajitha Hewathanthrige who plays the character of the mighty King Ravana, I wish to say, that to conceive a persuasive portrayal of the enigmatic Ravana itself is a monumentally herculean task given the colossal stature he traditionally holds in the collective psyche of Sri Lanka. Can anyone ever really portray King Ravana to the optimum satisfaction of a Sri Lankan audience? I believe it is a valid question given grandeur of the subject.

However, the topic may be debated, the director must be commended for casting Hewathanthrige as Ravana.

The actor projected an unmistakable demeanour of a redoubtable monarch supremely confident of his might and prowess. Until of course he has to implore Seetha to reciprocate his love for her! But, that too was acted well I would say. Rama, played by Chaminda Mirihagalla, was portrayed in a manner bespeaking of aspects of whimsicalness and petulance at times, which seemed to me almost an intentional degradation of Rama’s princely nobleness. At the very last scene he was almost like an impetuous teenager.

The truth is, in the context of the Ramayana, between Rama and Ravana, it is the former who is the more ‘political’ and complex character, being the seeming disempowered one who manages to trounce a mighty emperor. As much as Sri Lankan audiences would like to applaud Ravana, a watered down Rama is not a laudable element.

The directorial craft, in my opinion did not do justice to Ravana’s rival in this performance and failed to bring out the depth of substance in Rama. That I must say was disappointing. There were a few minor points that needed to be better timed as per my observation. The exiting of stage by Ravana at certain scenes happened almost a second before the lights fully dimmed. However, overall I will say for the record that this was a successful theatrical venture by Weeramuni partnering with his long time friend and university batchmate J.B. Dissanayake.

This is a play I would wholeheartedly recommend to theatregoers. It proved to be enjoyable and will surely capture the imagination of viewers. I hope it will be widely watched and bring a resurgence among present day theatregoers in appreciating the Sinhala operatic genre. Through this landmark work of Sinhala theatre, ‘Ravana Seethabilashaya’ Namel Weeramuni has marked a new phase in his journey as a theatre director.

Ravana Sithabhilashayawill go on the boards again on October 23 at 7 p.m. at Namel Malini Punchi Theatre. 

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