A play without words is a risky proposition. Why would a theatrical production abandon one of the most powerful tools at its disposal? In a performative audio-visual medium like theatre words can and do carry much weight. Much of theatre is carried by words – sometimes at the expense of the theatrical. The no-words choice in “Walking Path” appears to relate to the play’s thematic concerns at a number of levels. At one level it seems to be about silence: the shrinking space in contemporary Sri Lanka for expressing dissent and our complicity in maintaining and propagating this silence. At another, more pragmatic level it could be about escaping censorship – a play critical of the urban ‘beautification’ efforts of the state may have had a hard time getting through the Public Performances Board. But with no words, what can a censor do? Perhaps the script simply gave a set of stage directions and it is in how the play unfolds on stage that the contours of its social and ideological critique emerges.
The play is firmly anchored to a physical space – the walking paths that have emerged as part of post-war urban culture. But that space is also a metaphor because the paths reflect an emerging culture – a culture of conformity, passivity, apathy, commodification and many other things. “Walking Path” has no plot in the conventional sense but the sequence of scenes reflects something of a circular trajectory. The people in the play seem to begin and end in the same place – anxious and cowering in fear.
As the play opens the audience is confronted with a psychedelic scene of a set of people who seem to be agitated and fearful. We hear what seems to be gunfire and the characters appear alarmed and disoriented but they soon begin to cheer and celebrate. The invitation seems to be to read this as an end to conflict (the most immediate association being the end of war in 2009) and people are expressing their relief. The sounds the audience hears therefore can be either gunfire or fire-crackers or even both. This ambiguity works well because throughout the play there is a pervasive but subdued and haunting sense of menace – fire crackers, a bursting balloon or gunfire?.
The space then becomes more clearly visible. It is a park with pristine white benches but almost sterile and clinical in appearance. The people themselves are uniformly dressed in white track outfits and white sneakers. Awkwardly at first, they begin to exercise and soon seem to be embracing the exercise culture. A lot of this is hilariously rendered with characters twisting, contorting and gyrating on stage. The sequence of scenes that follow capture the contradictory tensions within this emerging walking path culture. As young lovers attempt to embrace whistles shriek out, stepping off the paths – literally and metaphorically – is prohibited and menacing figures of authority (who also seem to be janitors of the park – not much of a stretch to see the connection with how tri-forces personnel manage the new urban parks in and around Colombo) lurk in the background. The more insidious aspect of this culture of surveillance though is that the park users themselves begin to monitor each other – perhaps a larger comment on how we are internalizing a culture of self-censorship and regulation.
The play also comments on how this walking path culture for all the freedom, health and community it promises, turns out to be a dehumanizing experience where people withdraw into themselves. Frustrated by the regulation of their romantic and erotic desires the performers on stage retreat into a texting, selfie-taking and MMSing world facilitated by mobile phones. Human-to-human contact is supplanted by the phone and rather than relate to their real conditions of existence the people lose themselves in virtual reality. As the performance progresses the more menacing and authoritarian aspects of the walking paths become increasingly visible. Young lovers who attempt to confront the restrictions placed on them are subdued by a show of force and people who deliberately or by mistake veer off the strict protocols that govern this space are swiftly warned, punished and subdued.
The play ends with the tragic consequences of refusing to conform. Frustrated with the culture of conformity and silence, an individual literally attempts to run against the tide. He wrestles to the ground a blank sign board prohibiting some unnamed thing, moans in despair and then tries to block a set of robotic joggers, attempting to push them back. The menacing ‘park police’ appears in force. The man is kicked and punched to the ground. The others watch muted and scared to act. When the figures of authority finally go away they try to help their fallen colleague but as they do that another of the authority figures walks in with a set of white balloons, bursting them one by one and the people trying to help their fallen colleague fall down as if shot.
This final scene is perhaps the most powerful and chilling in the play. The man holding the balloons stands as a representation of the macabre underside of this culture. He looks like the friendly fair-ground balloon seller — a source of enjoyment for young kids and an inviting presence like the urban parks with their pristine benches and well manicured lawns – but here he is a grotesque projection of power and authority. What should be familiar and comforting bristles with menace. Within this new culture you can play, you can exercise but only according to a moral, social and political script that is decided for you. Step outside this script and the repercussions can be severe.
As a whole “Walking Path” is an effective piece of experimental theatre. It is a theatrical piece which takes something familiar and makes it strange, defamiliarizes it. The walking paths and the culture they signify has slowly crept into post-war subculture and become part of our mundane reality. But the play invites us, like Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s exhibition “Beutification” did last year, to a different reading. It asks us to see the political in the everyday. One reservation I had was though whether the effect of drab uniformity the play sought to create lead to a monotonous quality in the performance. At times I felt I was watching too much of the same thing. Having said that, “Walking Path”, I feel, was for the most-part an ensemble piece of theatre.