The stride continues, ‘from Jaffna’! | Sunday Observer

The stride continues, ‘from Jaffna’!

17 November, 2019

The genre of Sri Lankan theatre called ‘Ceylonese vintage plays’ hold a special place in the fabric of drama and theatre in the country. Those plays mark the roots of Sri Lanka’s English language theatre, from days of colonial Ceylon, projecting social issues and political events of the times within the scheme of comedy.

One of the best known and celebrated among Ceylonese vintage plays is the late E.F.C. Ludowyk’s He Comes From Jaffna. My acquaintance with this work goes back to what I heard from my late maternal grandfather Edmund Eramudgolla, and my father J.C. Boange, who too has watched it in his young days.

My own first experience of watching this classic was on July 1, 2011 at the Lionel Wendt auditorium, as a production directed by Jith Pieris. That was before yours truly wrote theatre reviews. And that was back in the day when my batch mate from Law College, Kanishka Herat, who is now a well established thespian in the Colombo centric English theatre, was making his presence gradually felt on the stage, playing the role of ‘Raju’.

Having written over 130 theatre reviews I have been eager to review a production of He Comes From Jaffna to add to my body of work as a theatre reviewer. It was therefore, a happy experience for me on February 16, this year, when I sat in the gentle darkness of the Wendt to watch a performance of He Comes From Jaffna directed by Jith Pieris. With apologies to all concerned, including the director and of course the readers of my reviews, for not being able to provide this piece sooner, let me present my observations on the performance of February 16, without comparing and contrasting it with my first experience of this play in 2011.

The production in respect of stagecraft and visual impression was in the characteristic Jith Pieris mould. A pleasing, tastefully executed, realist motif, bringing to life a residence of classy Colombo affluence set in colonial Ceylon. Stagecraft was along the lines of Chekhovian realist theatre it must be noted, with costumes that complemented the era and setting.

A significant aspect of this play as a vintage Ceylonese play is that it depicts how English being the language of the coloniser, is ‘stratified’ and has its ‘variations’ based on factors of class. There is in that sense a social hierarchism demonstrated through diction and phonology depictive of the milieu in which the play is found. Though both Tamil in ethnicity, there are audible lingual distinctions that set apart the brothers-in-law ‘Raja’ and ‘Durai’; the former being an outright product of ‘colonial Colombo’ while the latter sports the rural mettle of being rooted in, and being ‘from Jaffna’. The characters of Isaacs the shoemaker and Martin the uniformed household manservant who we may call a Sri Lankan ‘butler’ (?) are also symbols that showcase the truth of how social strata could be ‘read’ via the ‘quality’ of the English spoken.

This play is also one that noticeably provides via the platform of ‘comedy’ a cheeky communal scrutiny of the ‘Jaffna Tamil’, depicted via Durai and his ‘dicta’, as seen conceived by an outsider. One must note that the playwright Ludowyk was a Burgher and part of a community that, as far as I know, enjoyed better proximity to the folds of privilege in the days of British colonial Ceylon.

How ‘fair’ is this play in its satirized portrayal of the ‘Jaffna Tamil’ in terms of the values in character and social graces, is open for debate. Community traits and stereotypes is a theme that can be read from this play which thereby becomes very much part and parcel of the politics brought out through the script.

On the acting front I would say pretty much every player on stage delivered a satisfactory performance. The cast comprising, Anuruddha Fernando, Hans Billimoria, Swasha Malalasekera, Danu Innasithamby, Biman Wimalaratne, Michael Holsinger, Saranie Wijesinghe, Kovindu De Seram and Dilushka De Mel.

This being said it would be an injustice to not mention Anuruddha Fernando as Durai was simply brilliant, and Hans Billimoria’s performance as the gentle and naive, Cleveland Rajaratnam aka ‘Raja’, was memorable.

A notable credit to Jith Peiris’s vision of casting and directing was how Innasithamby, who played Durai’s son Aru and Fernando, brought to life on stage a well modulated chemistry of the friction and tension that underlies the façade in the father and son ‘bond’ Fernando and Innasithamby interplayed laudably.

One of the observations I made on the aspect of dialogue and its soundness in projecting correctness of English, was how Raja says, towards the end, as he discovers reason to have his faith in Durai restored, “one may trust brother-in-laws”. I was rather taken aback over this error in pluralisation wondering if it was Ludowyk’s script or Peiris’ directing that is at fault in this regard, since the correct plural of brother-in-law is ‘brothers-in-law’. Where the ‘s’ gets placed makes all the difference!

He Comes From Jaffna with its roots in colonial Ceylon was, as to the best of what my inquiries have unearthed, staged first in the early 1930s. Although many in the English theatre community in Colombo today seem to hold the notion that the first performance of The man from Jaffna –Durai, was portrayed on stage by the late veteran thespian E.C.B Wijesinghe, in truth, the first performance of Durai was actually by the late P. C. Thambugala, an old boy of Trinity College, Kandy, of whose performance I have heard from my aforementioned late maternal grandfather, and more recently from my father’s cousin Lionel Perera in Kandy.

A Trinitian with deep seated love and loyalty to his Alma Mater, my father’s cousin recounted to me as best his memory serves him now, his impressions of watching He Comes From Jaffna at the Trinity College main hall, as a schoolboy, and surmised the year of that performance to be 1937.

I have no doubt the recollections of ‘He Comes From Jaffna’ my maternal grandfather shared with me in his living years was surely of that same performance. Both my grandfather and my father’s cousin, praised Thambugala as an actor par excellence who delivered an unforgettable. A performance of Ludowyk’s Jaffna man, delivered in days of pre-independence, colonial Ceylon, recounted in this new millennium! He Comes From Jaffna truly is a work of vintage Ceylonese theatre that has not merely survived the ages but continues to show promise of strident continuance on stage.

One of the ‘myths’ woven to the legacy of He Comes From Jaffna which many nowadays may not be aware of, is how the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of P.C. Thambugala, aroused suspicion of foul play.

It was believed that he played his character just a little ‘too well’, and had attracted the wrath of certain people who saw ‘Durai’ as intolerably offensive. It is a topic that would merit research and investigation no doubt, as to whether in fact foul play silenced Ludowyk’s first Man from Jaffna. Should any reader wish to share with me any knowledge on this topic, please reach me via email at [email protected]

Thanking Jith Peiris and his team for bringing to life this year, a memorable production of one of the most loved comedies of the stage from among the Ceylonese vintage plays, and hailing them all a hearty ‘bravo!’, I shall in conclusion, add with zeal, ‘Encore! Encore!’