Hiran Abeysekara : A ‘tornado’ from the Indian ocean | Sunday Observer

Hiran Abeysekara : A ‘tornado’ from the Indian ocean

There has been a bit of a ‘tornado’ effect on the international news sites and social media last week about the winners of UK Theatre Awards 2019 at London’s Guildhall. Sri Lankan theatre actor, Hiran Abeysekara was the ‘star’ of this oldest and the most historical theatre awards festival who stole the limelight of the evening by winning the Best Performance award for his extravagant performance as ‘Pi’ of the highly acclaimed production of the year Life of Pi a Sheffield Theatre Production. The news itself is indeed a moment of celebration for theatre fanatics of the country as this young and absolutely talented actor, Hiran Abeysekara marked his imprints in gold as the first Sri Lankan actor to win the Best Performance award at the UK Theatre Awards 2019, the most recognized theatre awards festival in the world.

The playwright Lolita Chakrabarti who adopted Yann Martel’s Booker Prize, winning the best-selling novel Life of Pi and Max Webster who was the director of the play were the biggest winners of the UK Theatre Awards 2019 which took home four main awards in total including Best New Play, Best Director (Max Webster), Best Design and Best Performance in the Play (Hiran Abeysekara).

Life of Pi theatre production began its performances on June 22 this year and had its premiere at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre with a press night on July 9 and being the first major stage version of Life of Pi has been hailed as “unmissable” and “pure theatrical magic” from the beginning, according to international news sites.

“A stunning show”,”Extraordinary journey”, “Brilliant performance” are the usual audience comments received for the show since its magical beginning. Guardian’s, Mark Fisher described the way the new stage show switches between settings as “a triumph of transformative stagecraft”, and praised Hiran’s “superb central performance”. He said, “If it underplays the novel’s tone of helpless desperation, boredom and privation, it nonetheless does tremendous justice to the author’s imaginative canvas,”.

A newspaper review by critic Ann Treneman, concluded: “Roar it out: this is a hit.” Also the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, meanwhile, declared it “a worthy successor to War Horse”. He also wrote: “We’ve been waiting a while for the ‘next’ War Horse - a theatrical phenomenon that can hold a family audience spellbound, spur the imagination and make the heart race. It looks as though that moment has arrived.”

Hiran Abeysekera (33) stepped into the English theatre through Equus by Peter Shaffer in 2007 with his brilliant performance as Alan Strang and he was a member of Lanka Children’s and Youth Theatre Foundation and learnt the basics of theatre under veteran dramatist, the late Somalatha Subasignhe. His luminous performance as the lead role of Equus resulted in an opportunity for him to audition for the leading drama school at the UK Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) a decade ago and was fortunate enough to get selected to one of the 34 places available of the 2,700 applicants from all over the world and he graduated from RADA in 2011.

Last year he began appearing in the Nickelodeon sitcom Find Me in Paris as Dash Khan. Abeysekera made his professional stage debut with the English Touring Theatre in 2011, playing Valere in Tartuffe. In 2015, he played Peter Pan on the London stage, and in 2016 he was cast as Puck in the BBC’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi where Hiran played the lead role told the story which begins in a zoo in Pondicherry in 1976, in the face of political upheaval, about a 16-year-old Indian boy who sets off to emigrate with his family, but becomes trapped in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger for company. All the animals of the play including giraffes, orang-utans and zebras are created in the play through puppetry.

International media reported that the biggest fear of the production’s puppetry director, Finn Caldwell was that although they wanted something muscular, vivid and dangerous — their biggest horror was whether people would call the puppets cute. Chakrabarti who adopted the story into a play said in an interview that she loved the book when she read it in 2002 and when she checked the possibility with Martel to adopt the story into a play he just said, “take it, do what you feel, and good luck”.

Explaining the process of designing the puppets Cladwell, the puppetry designer said any animal puppet always begins with research into the real creature; and the internal frame for the tiger was based on the animal’s skeleton, constructed of wood and aluminium, and the joints made with elasticated bungee cords.

International media further quoted Cladwell saying, “It’s what we call a universal puppet, capable of everything that the live creature would be. The tiger has to be able to look seasick, to attack with great speed, to turn tight circles on that lifeboat,”

Although for the rest of its audiences Life of Pi was an extraordinary journey, speaking at the premier to the International website about his performance as ‘Pi’ Hiran said, “I’ve had a terrible trip,”.

Life of Pi was adapted for the big screen in 2012 in a film directed by Ang Lee, which won the filmmaker one of four Oscars.

And it’s a captivating and thrillingly realised film, suffused with magic - a testament to the power of imagination and the film also was well received by its audiences similar to the book.

As Sri Lankans we are not yet fortunate enough to witness a similar magic on stage.

Hiran Abeysekara’s award proves and reminds us though a small country with limited infrastructure to produce massive art projects, we are not at all limited in talented artists. Hiran’s weightless grace and precise physicality, charm, wit and seriousness makes him a compelling narrator of his own magical-realist tale.

As a nation we are proud of his achievement. His victory is not just an individual accomplishment, but a victory for the uplift of Sri Lankan theatre.

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