A feast of theatrical pageantry | Sunday Observer

A feast of theatrical pageantry

22 October, 2017

A pageantry of theatrical splendour couched in classicality embellished the Lionel Wendt Auditorium, as My Fair Lady came to life, to jubilantly mark the 25th year of The Workshop Players who have now been at the forefront of providing quality entertainment in the art of stage drama for a quarter century. Yours truly was seated under the gentle darkness of the Wendt on October 6 which was the opening night of this spectacular production which enjoyed a 10 day show run, ending on October 15.

The mould of the show

The show began in true classical spirit of theatre with an ‘overture’ (played over the sound system) as images of painted scenery of different locations in England that relate to the settings in the play, were projected onto the curtain to create a subtle cinematic effect to whet the ocular senses of the audience. The curtains parted to reveal at first a tableau of ‘still life’ of a vegetable and fruit vendor quarter of Covent Garden in London. Under colourful misted light, the coterie of habitués that form the street life of that cockney enclave, far removed in its veins from the veneer of affluently ‘elegant London’, soon sprang to life; and thus began the narrative of performance ingrained with vivacity and musicality that characterizes the classic, My Fair Lady, the musical which was written for the stage by Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe adapted from the play, Pygmalion, by Irish playwright Bernard Shaw.

The creative senses of the show’s Producer and Director seemed to have synergized well when looking at the production as an oeuvre of music, singing, dancing and top quality acting synced into one sweeping flow of performance couched in eye catching lighting, sets and costumes. The Director, Surein de S. Wijeyeratne has proven himself triumphantly through this silver jubilee production of The Workshop Players, and the veteran theatre practitioner Jerome L. de Silva as the producer of the show has again shown that he is the grand daddy of ‘spectacularity’ to create ‘wowsome’ Lankan theatre. One of the delightful elements to highlight, with respect to props and sets in this production was, I dare say, the vintage car that realized ‘mobility’ on stage when Mrs. Higgins offers Colonel Pickering a lift.

Noteworthy newcomers

The production was clearly a platform for a host of truly talented novices to make their presence felt in the Colombo centric English theatre scene. Young Daniella Perera who played Eliza Doolittle on opening night whom I saw for the first time in a main role in a big production, proved herself as a thespian with sterling talent to both act and sing. She endeared herself to the audience as both, the cockney cackling streetwise flower seller as well as the ‘socially elevated’ Ms. Doolittle with impeccable diction once transformed to classiness by the relentless efforts of the phoneticians, Prof. Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering.

Perera is undoubtedly a statement that her alma mater, Holy Family Convent, produces noteworthy thespian talent. Another greenhorn in this production who must be applauded is Devin Randeniya who played Freddy Eynsford-Hill. After watching Randeniya’s performance that night I soon recalled his sight to be that of the black lounge suit donned Brutus in the cup clinching production by St. Peter’s College at the inter school Shakespeare Drama competition last year. I have no doubts, both Perera and Randeniya will soon be ‘rising stars’ of the stage and prove to be assets to the Lankan sphere of English theatre.

Some of the memorable performances of that evening include, Piorina Fernando’s exquisite portrayal of Mrs. Higgins, the incorrigible dustman Alfred Doolittle played by Vishan Gunawardena, Kanishka Herat’s performance of the pompous and overbearing Henry Higgins and of course Jerome L. de Silva’s portrayal of a genteel and demure Hugh Pickering. Overall, the sizable ensemble of actors and actresses did a tremendously commendable job in this show of varying rhythms and paces, shades and motions. So, was everything of this opening night’s performance absolutely ‘picture perfect’ and ‘tickety-boo’? Unfortunately not. When the scene for the race course was being cued up, the lights accidentally came on early and revealed the backstage crew propping the set into place. The audience gave a mild gasp on seeing the gaffe. The stagehands bolted, and the lights switched off. The stage manager deserves the principal blame I suppose, together with the director for that logistical misadventure.

Unpardonable fumbles

Kanishka Herat fumbled his lines on no less than three instances. Almost fleeting and perhaps marginally noticeable to the absolute layman, but not to yours truly. Tsk, tsk Mr. Herat! You committed the ‘thespian sin’ that a reviewer ought not to overlook! And you will not be spared a pen lashing! The first fumble happened while going up to the landing of the stairs in the first of the scenes in Higgins’s study.

The next followed in a mere moment and was somewhat symptomatic of the actor having become aware of a fumble and getting caught in a tinge of nervousness which can cause a follow up fumble. The third was in the aftermath of the scene at the races when Higgins speaks the word ‘horse’ in one of his lines.

Herat being now a reasonably seasoned actor disallowed a few fumbles to turn into a physiological hurdle and turn chronic. In all fairness to the actor it must also be said that given the weighty nature of the role he had to play which was indeed a ‘mouthful’, and despite the barely noticeable fumbles, he did deliver an impressive performance.

Crux of the politics

At the heart of My Fair Lady is a subtle story about British class struggle and how social stations are designated and demarcated with language as the ‘ear marker’. Hear them speak and know where they come from, and what their place is in the highly stratified social spectrum of England. While showing the rigidities of the British class system through comedy meant for ‘society that can afford theatre’, this musical which is adapted from a Shavian play, shows a vein of centre-rightwing politics. Eliza Doolittle is a symbol that upward social mobility is not impossible. But just not possible right across the board.

Curtain call

The opening night of My Fair Lady that marked the silver anniversary of The Workshop Players, received standing ovations at curtain call, from many that evening, including yours truly. And seeing, how this tremendous theatrical feat would not have been possible if not for the patronage of sponsors who support the arts, I believe a salute and applause are due, Cargills PLC and Cargills Magic ice-cream for being principal sponsor and co-sponsor respectively, for this magnificent production. And so to The Workshop Players and all who made My Fair Lady a reality on the boards of the Wendt, I say –‘Bravo! Bravo! Bellissimo!’