Social criticism coalesced with comedy | Sunday Observer

Social criticism coalesced with comedy

2 December, 2018

Muslims drink, but they don’t boast about it, is a purported revelation in Aslam Marikar’s ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’, a play written and directed by Marikar whose practice in theatre has been to produce original scripts in English, and offer social criticism through the medium of theatre. On November 3, seated in the gentle darkness of the Punchi Theatre I watched the Sri Theatre Company bring to life for theatregoers in Colombo, ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’, a contemporary work of Sri Lankan theatre that was of a predominantly English narrative which also included a bit of Sinhala. At the outset itself it must be noted that this play was not about ‘Muslim bashing’ but, sensible criticism, and cannot be deemed either ‘treacherous’ on the part of its playwright cum director, or be branded ‘racist’ simply because it questions the traditional ‘Muslim milieu’ in Sri Lanka.

The play centres on the wedding night of a Muslim couple who due to circumstances quite unexpected, find themselves trying to be matchmakers to the bride’s divorcee aunt and the groom’s bachelor uncle. The story which unfolds entirely in the newlywed’s bedroom shows a colourful string of events that deal with themes such as, ‘the purpose and basis of matrimony’ and ‘the idea of a happy marriage’, ‘social pressures related to matrimony’, ‘regrets left unaddressed’ as well as, the belief that ‘love is ageless’.

The play unfolds a narrative which contests notions of stereotyping Muslims and the ideas and ‘ideals’ bound to Muslim marriages as per traditionalism within the Muslim community. Marikar has thus ventured into a critical appraisal of Muslim matrimonial culture. Woven into the fabric of this comedy is a serious vein of criticism that deals with ideas within the Muslim community at social and cultural levels and thus does carry a political undertone that is worth citing in light of how there is public debate about changes suggested to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of Sri Lanka.

Marikar’s play shows newlyweds Nazeer, played by Chanaka Epakanda, and his bride Rukaiya played by Mithma De Silva, realise that they don’t share the same intention of how their first night as husband and wife should be spent. Nazeer is roaring to consummate the marriage while Rukaiya who is a headstrong modern thinking Muslim girl doesn’t believe she has to concede to physical intimacy unless she is ready. In that contention the narrative hits on the notions of conjugal duties, and what in fact demarcates a marriage as a bonding obligation. ‘Non consummation of the marriage’ is after all a valid legal ground for calling it quits.

Events that actually precede the couple’s entry into their room spin into a situation where Rukaiya’s aunt Zeena is found hiding under the ‘marital bed’, and soon a dialogue that involves reminiscence and rekindling of past unresolved issues surface. Two generations meet in unusual circumstances for the telling of the story of a secretly suffering divorcee. It is soon revealed that Zeena’s lifelong true love to whom she could not make the pledge of lifelong matrimony due to social pressures mounting on her, turns out to be Nazeer’s hedonistic ‘bachelor boy’ uncle Feroze, played by Anaz Haniffa.

The newlyweds after considerable debate strike an accord between them to play matchmakers to get Feroze and Zeena together again. The wedding night’s events take some rather hilarious turns and bring out a good dose of comedic uproar set in a story that deals with past heartaches and optimistic outcomes to right the wrongs, and prove that when it comes to true love ‘age and vintage’ do not matter.

On the aspect of stagecraft and lighting it must be noted that appreciable Chekhovian type realism in stagecraft was presented together with lighting and costumes in keeping with the motif of realism. However, when it came to the aspect of music that element could have been better worked into the flow of the performance, was what I observed. Being conspicuously on cue the audio track added a touch of the melodramatic when the story of the lovers Zeena and Feroze was narrated. As much as I could appreciate the directorial intention to add an element of the ‘dramatic’ through sound to heighten the emotional significance of those moments, I am of the opinion that it choppily splashed a ‘soap opera moment’ across the stage and impeded what could have been achieved as unravelling the emotional depths of the characters whose chances for love in their youth was lost to them.

On the matter of how ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’ is a script that must be understood as an original English script I must say, the aspect of the security guard, played by Heshan Pethiyagoda creates an incongruity to the lingual scheme of the narrative. His lines are entirely in Sinhala and at that are quite impressive literary diction; his one moment with lines being when he attempts to profess his love for the household’s maid played by Larryn Bultjens.

While I do not think it is fair to suggest that it is impossible that a man who is employed as a security guard could not possess impressive Sinhala language skills, I do think that the whole concept or theoretical premise of an English medium script gets disrupted with that grandiose Sinhala monologue. I am not by any means against bilingual theatre. In fact, those who regularly read my theatre reviews would know I do in fact applaud and encourage bilingual scripts that credibly reflect the urban lingual reality of contemporary Sri Lanka.

The incongruity with bilingual credibility that I saw in the narrative of ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’ is that it is only the security guard who arrives on the scene being ‘verbosely Sinhala’ while the maid of the household speaks English commendably. While I would not venture to say it is impossible that a woman who speaks English well would occupy the position of a domestic servant, it is however highly unlikely to see ‘help’ with English language competency that is grammatically sound. I for one believe, on the level of analysing the script, the reality of spoken language and the socio-cultural hierarchism of language in today’s Sri Lanka needs to be gauged in terms of how ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’ would perform to Sri Lankan audiences as ‘credibly Sri Lankan’.

Marikar’s mission to use theatre as a medium for social criticism is certainly appreciable. I do believe through ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’ a pertinent aspect of contemporary social criticism comes out with respect to modern individual freedoms and traditional communal interests. And, delivering food for thought in a vessel of comedic entertainment is always a good way to capture an audience’s interests. I offer my applause to the Kandy based Sri Theatre Company for the production of ‘To Be Or Knot To Be’ brought to life on the boards of the Punchi Theatre in Colombo.

Pix: Yohan Ferreira for DramaSriLanka