Work and travel kept me from writing about two significant theatre productions in the past month. Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Widows’ directed by Feroze Kamardeen and produced by Sirraj Abdul Hameed was staged at the Wendt from 23-25 of November. ‘Unearthed’, billed as a site-specific theatre and dance journey through a private home, was directed by Ruhanie Perera (from Floating Space Theatre Company) and Sally E. Dean, performed on 1st and 2nd December in Kotte and produced by Iromi Perera and Silke Arnold.
The staging of ‘Widows’ can be appreciated through two distinct lenses – the text in the context of post-war Sri Lanka, and the actual performance on stage. A review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times of a production in 2008 in the New York Times ends by noting that though, “many have suffered (and continue to suffer)…cruel treatment”, ‘Widows’ “signally fails to bring the horror of it home.” Karmardeen’s production doesn’t fare any better in communicating the fundamental, macabre horror that lies at the heart of Dorfman’s text, but placed in Sri Lanka’s post-war context, the staging of the play was a powerful reminder of a systemic violence most often gloss over and seek to ignore.
In just the short time since ‘Widows’ was staged at the Wendt, we’ve discovered a new mass grave and undergraduate students have been arrested without any reason in Jaffna, their whereabouts unknown even to their parents. MCM Iqbal, Secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s Truth Commissions and Presidential Inquiry Panels puts the number of Sinhalese youth who disappeared during the late 80s at a staggering 60,000. An article penned by him two years ago on Groundviews, based on evidence presented to a Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons in the early 90s, places mass graves in Sri Lanka in Essella, Vavulkelle, Sooriyakanda, Hokandara, Dikwella, Angkumbura, Essella, Wavulkelle, Walpita Farm, Ankumbura, Kotawakella, Yakkalumulla, Deniyaya, Kokkaddicholai, Chemmani and Akuressa. This doesn’t take into account mass graves in and around Nandikadal during the final weeks and months of war. The horror depicted in ‘Widows’ is tragically actualised in Sri Lanka – we inhabit a country literally littered with the remains of those who have been tortured, raped and brutally murdered, and with complete impunity. The presence and nature of the Army personnel in the play is again deeply resonant, reflecting our own Army’s violent behaviour and braggadocio during and post-war. And yet ‘Widows’ offers a model of courage, by women who have lost so much, that many Sri Lankans still lack, or perhaps fear to openly express and act upon. In their collective ownership of a decomposed body, the women in ‘Widows’ openly defy official edicts and stentorian authority, at significant risk to self, friends and family. Compare this with our supine genuflection of and obsequious deference to Sri Lanka’s (‘heroic’) Army and in particular, a loutish Secretary of Defence. No matter what violence they architect and execute, we offer them a blanket of impunity to continue and amplify what they both do best – hurt and harm. The horror the women in the play face, we experience and yet still seek to underplay in real life. There are two cadavers in the play, but the true foci of violence lies with the women who are widows – robbed of not just their men, but hope itself. Theirs is an existential lament – a loss so irreparable, they demand even decomposed bodies of indeterminable origin for closure. Many of us wish to forget and move on, but not unlike the widows in Dorfman’s play, there are vast numbers of women, men, youth and children in many parts of Sri Lanka to whom grief, loss, pain and suffering endures. Kamardeen’s choice of staging ‘Widows’, in this context, is commendable.
And yet, as a performance, ‘Widows’ was below par. The central character of Sofia Fuentes, played by Swasha Malalasekara, was unconvincing. While makeup suggested a woman aged before her years by a profound grief, Sofia’s movement on stage gave away Swasha’s real age. Though she was able to captivate the audience in a few instances with powerful laments forcefully delivered, Sofia was forgettable in the larger play, which is not how the text has it. This was in part due to the fine acting – indeed, the standout performance of the play – by Gehan Blok as the Lieutenant. Gehan brought depth, maturity and reflection to his character. With a sonorous voice employed to convey a chilling insensitivity and cunning, delivered with finesse, Gehan effortlessly commanded every scene he was in. Dino Corea as the Narrator was also good, interweaving the dramatic action with finely delivered lines that sought to place what transpired on stage in our own lives. The only other cast member from the ’98 production, Neluka Silva, playing a village woman as well as Beatrice Kastoria, allowed the audience to easily imagine what it would be like for stage prop to suddenly come alive, with a performance that was wooden and stilted. Overall and unfortunately, the entire cast of women were more annoying than engaging, communicating a whole range of emotions by merely employing rasp shrieks and the shrill delivery of dialogue.
While Kamardeen’s choice of staging ‘Widows’ was timely and for his company, perhaps risky for its choice of subject matter, a production that hinged on the prowess of one or two actors in a cast of many more cannot be seen as a resounding success. But while the production’s power to interrogate more fully Sri Lanka’s bloody history was undermined by its poor acting overall, the mere fact that it was staged served to remind at least a few of how many Sofia’s, Alexandra’s, Yanina’s, Fidelia’s, Teresa’s, Rosa’s, Cecilia’s and Beatrice’s there are in our own country, and even post-war, how much their grief lies unaddressed and unacknowledged.
‘Unearthed’ was a very different experience to ‘Widows’, and frankly, unlike any production I’ve ever been to in Sri Lanka. In my interview for Groundviews with Ruhanie Perera, I looked at how the production, before it was staged, sought to interweave prose and poetry with performance and architecture. In concept alone, ‘Unearthed’ broke new ground. However, in my substantive research for the interview with Ruhanie, the work of Sally E. Dean, the production’s co-director, came across at best as self-indulgent and frequently, downright bizarre. At her most compelling, a performance project in Indonesia (called ‘Kolaborasi’), it is unclear how much of a role she played in shaping what appears to be a fantastic production and how much of it was endogenous expression and movement. Though it was hard to prefigure what to expect from ‘Unearthed’, as it turned out, the production was a coup de théâtre for Floating Space as a company and for Ruhanie in particular. Making it one of the most interesting, innovative and memorable productions I’ve seen was how it approached performance using text, expression and location. The text was based on writing by Adrienne Rich, a celebrated American poet, essayist and feminist who passed away earlier year. The expression through movement was based on interpreting the Adrienne’s text through dance. The movement was is turn informed by the choice of location – an eclectic three-storied house in Kotte, just outside Colombo. Here, the physical layers of the location strengthened and brought to sharp focus the layered text and performance. Movement was inextricably entwined with elements of the house – be it cloaked in cloth, around a dinner table, in front of a doll’s house, inside a glass cupboard, in veranda or room. This visual and imagined interplay of text and architecture was fascinating, and clearly the result of an inspired process of artistic visioning, far more demanding than any production in a conventional or even black box theatre space.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the production was in how it approached audience. Usually, a theatre space offers a pre-determined cone of vision on dramatic action on account of seating arrangement. In some spaces, this means that those who can afford higher ticket prices get to experience a production markedly different to those who can only afford tickets at the back, sides or for example, balcony. In other more experimental spaces, the audience is more loosely arranged, but still kept at bay through predefined seating around the ‘stage’. In ‘Unearthed’, the audience was from the get-go cajoled into following the dramatic action unfold by an actor, but also free to move around as they wished. This single fact alone made ‘Unearthed’ a sui generis experience, since you could opt to not follow the crowd and see the production unfold from vantage points of one’s own choosing. This I did on the first night of the production, but it was also clear that Sri Lankan audience in general are unused to forging their own path. If however one did linger on, or take a different path to what was suggested, ‘Unearthed’ offered its second unique innovation – movement and dramatic action that prefigured and lingered on after the immediate performance. Depending on where you stood or sat, you could see actors in place for the next stage of the performance, or engaged in the theatrical equivalent of an afterglow, moving in a slow cadence, in and towards the shadows, once their role was played out and as (most of) the audience moved on. In what is hard to capture in words, this resulted in a seamless, non-linear theatrical experience. It’s unlike any production I’ve ever been to, and utterly refreshing. And while ‘Unearthed’ could have easily been esoteric and abstract, it was in fact very resonant with the violence of our ordinary lives. In movement and verbal expression, Adrienne’s original text was interpreted through expression and movement that was captivating and resonant. At the end, having moved through a range of loci, emotions and movement, the audience filters out through a starkly silent, dimly lit house filled with the remnants of ‘Unearthed’ as well as its own bric-a-brac – acutely, uncomfortably cognisant that this is in fact a real home one is navigating (with real emotions woven into furniture, wall and space), and at the same time, projecting to this alien locus one’s experiences and emotions surfaced by the production.
Yet, if ‘Unearthed’ in concept and design aimed as Rich suggested to “extend the possibilities of truth”, where it failed in parts was in execution. Whereas Venuri Perera was sublime in her dance interwoven with spoken text, and Sulakshani Perera was able to communicate an unnerving violence by just her eye movement and staccato expression, Jake Oorloff’s performance – surprising, given the maturity of this actor – was terribly contrived. In the scene where the attempt was to express the burden of history and memory, Jake only succeeded in prancing around and juggling a book, never really engaging with the underlying gravity of the text or idea of its being burdensome. In another scene that could have been very powerful, Tracy Jayasinghe simply swallowed and dampened the power of the verse she was supposed to bring to life through movement and expression. In these scenes, the audience was left wondering what the fuss was all about, since the actors were clearly alienated from what gave life to the scenes, performing sequences because they had to and not because they wanted to. On the first night, the last scene unfortunately echoed Eliot’s Hollow Men, ending the performance not with the bang, but whimper. All of the actors failed to elevate the production to the emotional crescendo it was leading up to, leaving a confused audience that wondered what the point was to a game of cards punctured by increasingly loud calls to missing persons. Adding to this confusion was the irascibly misleading programme note, which stated there was to be another scene that followed, which had been deleted by the Directors.
Yet the production of ‘Unearthed’ suggests there could be theatre so much better than the usual fare we go for – theatre that is inventive, bold and visionary, merging different forms of movement and seeking inspiration from texts outside the usual script written for stage. In embracing design, architecture, text and movement, ‘Unearthed’ sets a new benchmark for site-specific theatre in Sri Lanka in particular.
And the bar is high.
What Stage Light and Magic as well as Floating Space have in the past month treated audiences to, in very different ways and markedly different spaces, is theatre that encourages critical reflection and engagement with the inconvenient and the violent.
One can only wish for more of the same, with greater frequency.