Gazing into the Closet | Sunday Observer

Gazing into the Closet

2 September, 2018

When a young somewhat effeminate looking bachelor invites you to his studio apartment and says he doesn’t have a chair to offer you because he doesn’t ‘believe in chairs’, but has in plain sight his bed centrally placed in his dwelling, what sort of impression does that create? That was part of the somewhat nervous dialogue that came out when Vidhura met Nick on the boards of the Punchi Theatre as playwright and director Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s ‘The One Who Loves You So’ came alive as a work of theatre. This play had its maiden run from August 15 - 17. Yours truly was at the Punchi Theatre on 16th Thursday to catch this ‘Adults Only’/18+ rated stage play. The show was performed to a practically full house.

‘The One Who Loves You So’ is as sexually explicit as theatre can get, I suppose, in present day Sri Lanka. As far as Sri Lankan theatre goes, this play was a brazen boundary breaker, the staging of which was an outright attack on Sri Lanka’s conservatism. It cannot, by general Sri Lankan societal norms, be considered a show for even an all adult family’s viewing.

This original play by Welandawe-Prematilleke does not have a traditional ‘plot’ per se. It’s more about the scenario that unfolds in terms of both actions and emotions when a young man named Vidhura who (despite being from an affluent family) lives in a rather modest bachelor flat on Colombo’s Marine Drive, ‘hooks up’ with a male foreigner of mixed racial / ethnic identity who he connects with online, through a dating app. The foreigner claiming to be a consultant accountant based in Colombo is initially solely interested in engaging in carnal relations.

An absolute no strings attached ‘hook up’. The foreigner who doesn’t state his real name on his dating app / social media profile(s) is later revealed by the name of Nick. The themes entwined in the play which is about the issues of homosexual relationships in a society that doesn’t openly support homosexuality also deal with factors of class and culture.

Nick, although he occupies the representative space of the white westerner, the Occident, he can be deciphered as a British national who clearly is not of the upper strata of British society. There is no real need to know the socio-economic background of this character to know that he is of ‘worker class’ origins.

The way he speaks, something of a cockney like nonstandard English, is sufficient testimony. On being revealed that Vidhura is what Nick tauntingly calls a ‘Colombo trust fund baby’ the dimensions of ‘class’ get woven into the subtext of how these characters may be read in respect of cultural hierarchism. Though the professionally qualified corporate functionary white skinned ‘Suddha’, club hopping in Colombo’s urban cultural avenues of economic affluence, Nick cannot really be considered as rooted in a stratum of higher culture compared to Vidhura.

Through the interactions and conflicts between these two men, an authorial intention of giving rise to a thesis of what it means to be ‘civilised’ is perhaps within the four corners of the text of Welandawe-Prematilleke’s play. ‘Civilised’ is being explored as what makes an individual a decent human being. The play’s scenario deals with dignity and self worth in the context of sexual gratification and companionship.

Vidhura seeks at least some semblance of being qualified for companionship with Nick as opposed to being a disposable item that serves the purpose of momentary gratification. Here lies the conflict of objectives in the encounter between the Occident and his Lankan / local ‘hook up’.

Following the sexual encounter Nick reveals he has a girlfriend and that he is furthermore in a relationship that is interestingly described to the effect of being both ‘steady and/yet open’. Much to Vidhura’s astonishment this nature of Nick’s relationship with his girlfriend which Vidhura gradually dissects in the course of the narrative as being hypocritical, insincere, and a facade for better social acceptability, indicates how Nick seeks his girlfriend Kate as a social credential, his true companion, and that anything that happens with anyone else is dismissible as just sex and nothing to do with love. This aspect of the narrative engenders the question whether the likes of Nick can actually love a man? Or if they have even introspectively explored what ‘love’ truthfully is to them?

Vidhura’s elocution at first seemed tinged with a bit of a put on accent, which after the emotional intensity brewed up and made him indignant, dissipated to give sound to a much more authentic Sri Lankan natural bilingual’s standard of speaking English. Perhaps, it was the need for Vidhura to appear more sophisticated when meeting a foreigner that caused the ‘embellished elocution’? And perhaps, the indignation made him less self-conscious and allowed his truer being to gain voice? That was another lingual aspect of the performance to consider when gauging the dynamics of the encounter between the two men.

Nick pervaded a demeanour of the inimical invasive Occident whose sole purpose was heartless extraction of what would seem as ‘gain’; in this instance being carnal pleasure. His behaviour stated an unapologetic savageness that projects sex as nothing short of an act demonstrative of power and conquest. However, the encounter showed his ‘animality’ thaw to ‘humanity’.

There lies the power of the (sensitive) being within the ‘local boy’; the ability to tame the ‘white beast’ that saw him as nothing more than ‘meat’ to satiate hunger. Interestingly enough, among the small pile of books below Vidhura’s bed was Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’! And from a symbolic stance, yes, the tan complexioned man does (to an extent) subdue the predacious white tiger that prowled through his door; but not so far, as the play’s development shows, leashing Nick to be Vidhura’s very own. Their encounter isn’t limited to a mere one night stand, but doesn’t become an arranged plan of companionship either. Time does lapse but doesn’t construct ‘courtship’ as such.

Vidhura doesn’t want to be merely an experience for men who don’t really think of themselves as homosexual but try it as an exotic escapade, a secretive indulgence in a taboo that should be at best kept in the closet and ideally swept not under the carpet but right out the door. He doesn’t want to be just a side dish that’s not even brought to table but gobbled in the closet.

Vidhura challenges the sincerity or genuineness of bisexuality. He sees the label as a device for artifice by men to ‘legitimise’ their homosexual indulgences secretly, without being a committed or a decided, homosexual. He sees it as a ruse for men who have got a ‘normal life’ in the open but seek the taboo in the closet. Its perhaps, a narrowness of Vidhura’s own character brought out in that line of argument since he clearly sees himself as a person whose love life is about being a ‘used body’ that makes him feel practically a ‘nobody’ as his self-worth seems unrealised in the context of finding love in a culture that doesn’t openly support his sexual orientation. One of the most striking expressions in cinematic performance that I have seen on deep emotional bonds between two men in an undefined relationship, is in Clint Eastwood’s ‘J. Edgar’, the moment where the eponymous J. Edgar Hoover confesses in his latter stages, to Clyde Tolson how he had always ‘needed’ Tolson and that it was a daunting feeling as Hoover had never felt he ‘needed’ anyone, until then. Emotional dependency is a powerful thing. It can be crippling as much as elating. It all depends on how you relate to it. At the heart of ‘The One Who Loves You So’ is that very issue. How emotional entanglements can be crippling when the human needs of love and sex collide.

The confidence with which performance was done which included intense lip locking and ‘staging’ several positions of penetrative sex between men, suggested the only reason that the two actors kept their underwear on while acting the scenes of intimacy would have been factors of law applicable to live public performances.

The two actors displayed a degree of completely believable comfortableness in the situations they portrayed that they seemed utterly unselfconscious of being on stage before a live audience, and for that matter rendered the audience demonstrably nonexistent in their consciousness, being Vidhura and Nick. What existed on that stage that evening were two very authentic characters. Welandawe-Prematilleke as a theatre practitioner through ‘The One Who Loves You So’ showed a strong script brought to life through brilliantly compelling thespian talent found in Brandon Ingram as Vidhura and Benjamin Aluwihare as Nick.

Stagecraft of this play was not of the realist mode. It was not patent minimalism either, but more on the design to be adaptable to scene switching and thus a non-traditional form. The sets were conjoined and disjointed to make the scene switches and served to depict Vidhura’s apartment, the roof ledge outside his window, and a park bench when the two men stepped outside for a recreational outing.

Although not strictly essential to understanding the text of this play, but with regard to aspects of performance, I should remark that as a theatregoer since my teens and a reviewer who has written over 120 theatre reviews, ‘The One Who Loves You So’ was the stage play in which I saw cookery done on stage for the very first time.

Vidhura’s preparation of scrambled eggs, one of the most simple of food preparations I suppose, but nevertheless actual, legitimate ‘cooking’, added a subtle degree of realism to the action on stage to seem more true to life despite the stagecraft which didn’t subscribe to Chekhovian realism. This simple aspect of performance in my opinion adds positive value in making the scenario on stage more compelling. It wouldn’t have been the same if Vidhura in his need to make Nick stay longer had offered him cheese and crackers. And as gender stereotyping goes, the cooking made Vidhura, symbolically the more effeminate of the two.

Despite all the bonding the two men experience, and the rise of feeling in Nick for Vidhura in the course of their interactions, finally, as expectations mount, what is shown is that Vidhura does in the end seem to become, although perhaps, not solely a physical one, an ‘experience’ nevertheless for Nick, who finds Vidhura’s expectations too burdensome. Dressed to depart, as the foreigner solemnly steps out in the manner of a permanent leave taking, the ending moment unfolds poignantly with a popular hit from the 80s. Vidhura sits on his roof ledge solitarily looking out into the night, and the audio system plays Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. At the curtain call that evening the packed house saluted the players and the team behind the production with a standing ovation.

Pic: You’re My Favorite