‘Close to the Bone’, billed as a theatrical collaboration between Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke and Isuru Kumarasinghe, was part of Colomboscope 2016 and held at the Presidential Suite, Cinnamon Lakeside. Almost exactly three years ago, Welandawe-Prematilleke directed ‘Paraya’, also an immersive theatre experience held as part of that year’s Colomboscope, albeit in a markedly different, much more dilapidated yet far more expansive venue. ‘Paraya’ was compelling. As with ‘Close to the Bone’, there was an element of technology involved – a blog called ‘The National Happiness Authority’, created for and anchored to the production, provided details of the world in which the production was set. It’s still there online, providing a glimpse into what was a well-researched, immersive production critiquing a country post-war, censorship, militarisation and at the time, a serious democratic deficit. As Gehan Gunatilleke in his review of the production noted,
“The triumph of ‘Paraya’ was its ability to immerse us in the milieu and expose us for our complicity. The natural reaction to the production—exalting it in the abstract as a brilliant political critique—may in fact betray us further… The story of ‘Paraya’ does not end when the lights go out and the apprehensive applause begins. It continues today with our every act of blind compliance.”
Clearly, a hard act to follow. ‘Close to the Bone’ continues Welandawe-Prematilleke’s interest in immersive theatre, which in a country only ever interested in theatre at the Wendt, cannot be commended highly enough. In its thematic underpinnings and plot, the production also mirrored issues highlighted in ‘Better Than Ever Before’ staged at the British Council in July, also written and performed by Welandawe-Prematilleke. My interest in going to see ‘Close to the Bone’ was in part to see how for Welandawe-Prematilleke, what is clearly an enduring interest in interrogating class, choice and urban development manifested itself in a new work. ‘Better than Ever Before’ was an utter fiasco. Would this production be any better?
Intent matters. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke’s choice of subject, style of theatre, location and characters suggest they wanted us – all of a certain class, social background and privilege – to be more conscious of ourselves, our choices, and the attendant, thinly veiled yet very real violence we architect, countenance and go on to justify, at the end of each production. The production sought to unsettle and reveal not just by was done and said overtly, but also by insights into what each character was thinking at a given point of time, independent of what they were doing, or saying openly. This was done through technology, and the issue here is that what was so central to the experience of the play, was so ill-thought through.
First, the good. The syncing of internal thoughts with what the characters said out aloud was sheer brilliance, when it worked. The production’s Facebook page gives an insight into how this was achieved, and deserves recognition as something that was really inspired and if I am not wrong, done for the first time in Sri Lanka. Having access to the thoughts of characters added depth and texture, and while the production could be enjoyed without this added input, having it meant a deeper, more granular understanding of why a character did or said something. The ambient sounds and music also added to atmosphere, creating tension or setting up a scene even as the actors rushed from place to place. But what was a great idea in the main, simply failed too many times. The technical challenges were not insurmountable. The placement of routers was inappropriate. Bridge routers could have been used to boost the signal to the periphery, where the signal simply didn’t extend to. The model of routers used and the Wi-Fi standard they were based on simply could not cope with the number of users in the location. What all this resulted in was an experience that placed many of us at a disadvantage on multiple levels – having to fiddle around with our phones in the middle of the production, having to deal with sudden and recurrent signal loss, the sudden switching of sound streams, corrupted audio and sometimes a loss of synchronisation between live action and internal monologue. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke are not required to know advanced wireless networking. But between them, they certainly have ready access to a wider community who would have freely helped with knowledge and equipment to make the technology far more resilient to the demands of the production. However, the inability or unwillingness of the directors and producers to ensure that overall, technology matched the demands of plot, pace and place, unfavourably impacted the experience of the play, which was a real pity.
A central reason why the technology failed so badly brings me to the second most frustrating aspect of the production – the numbers in the audience. The Presidential Suite at Cinnamon Lakeside was clearly never designed with an immersive theatrical production in mind. Given the layout and architecture of the space, it is unfathomable why Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke decided to accommodate, for each production, forty people as audience, plus production crew and the four actors, bringing in total those in a rather confined space closer to fifty. The technology failed and the very essence of immersive theatre failed because there were too many people. Characters often quickly disappeared into a sea of bodies. They couldn’t be followed. They couldn’t be observed. The concentration of people overwhelmed the routers. Following a character out of the suite and back in resulted in the complete loss of signal. Action in certain spaces could only accommodate at most four or five, and there were often three or four times that number all attempting to get a good vantage point, before giving up and by extension, losing out on key moments. Immersive theatre requires intimacy, and if exploration is explicitly billed as part of what the audience is actively encouraged to do, the numbers each night killed it. It is also unclear if Kumarasinghe, Welandawe-Prematilleke and the others in the play took the journey as an audience member, to understand how we would see, follow and interact with the performance. In locating key moments in places where, given numbers, no one really had clear access to, much of the play was lost – a case in point being the moment Kusal (the character played by Welandawe-Prematilleke) hid a bloodied garment under a bed, which a friend just a few feet away and from just a slightly different perspective completely missed. I bent down and examined the garment soon after Kusal left the room in a rush and everyone rushed after him. More should have got that chance, after seeing what I did. The production note averred that “if you do not move, you will not see the play”. While true, the fact was that even if you wanted to move, you often could not. This was not a failure of space or location – it was a failure of design and imagination. Perhaps Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke wanted to make as much money as possible to cover production costs, or they just didn’t think about how the excessive numbers would impact the production. Either way, as immersive theatre goes, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed spectacularly.
There were other ill-thought out aspects. In ‘Paraya’, the characters the audience could choose to follow were present from the start. In ‘Close to the Bone’, forty people had on screen four choices, but at the start of the production and for a good few minutes into it, only two characters in front of them. As a loose analogy, there is in computing a phrase called the ‘tyranny of the default’, to explain why when presented with a pre-selected option on-screen, most users will never choose another. When all of the audience were at first only presented with two characters – Kusal or Tania (played by Thanuja Jayawardene) – very few opted to switch to Yasodha (Subha Wijesiriwardene) or Sanchia (Tehani Chitty), after they appeared. What this also meant was that those tuned into Kusal or Tania’s audio streams experienced the worst network glitches. Furthermore, on each night’s second cycle, most who followed either Kusal would have opted to follow Tania, and vice-versa, instead of switching to perhaps equally if not more interesting narratives contained in the characters of Yasodha and Sanchia. It is impossible to fathom whether the production’s structural bias towards two characters out of four was deliberate or inadvertent, but it did, for me, negatively impact the experience of the play.
And here we get into plot. The production had a clear focus on class and high-rise living, but mediated through lines which often risked caricature. Unlike the degree of research which had gone into ‘Paraya’, there was little understanding around the complex, varied and mutable politics and optics of post-war urban development in Colombo. The dialogue was often painfully contrived especially when characters expressed opinions related to choice, lifestyle, location or privilege, intended to reflect insecurities of urban, middle-class society. The plot builds up tension towards a violent denouement, but as was experienced, frustrating to engage with given how much of it was lost or partially encountered because of mercurial technology and over-crowding. It was hard to determine with any certainty the intent of Welandawe-Prematilleke or Kumarasinghe. What may have for them and the actors been a clear critique that was well communicated, for the audience was opaque, scattered and distant. All four characters were clearly interesting in their own way, with their personal histories inextricably entwined through blood ties, lust, love, friendship, shared insecurities or some heady combination of all this. It was no small feat to think of four interweaving stories all coming to a climax in the course of a single evening. And yet, so much of texture present perhaps in the script was largely lost to an audience struggling with technology and often only on the margins of what was being acted out, outside the dining room, living room and balcony.
And finally, a word about acting. All four actors are well-seasoned and familiar with the kind of theatre they engaged in, which helped. Welandawe-Prematilleke, after a string of dreadful productions and performances at the British Council, was back to form and rendered Kusal very well – a man often with no (audible) conscience, vacillating from self-pity and loathing to braggadocio and false courage – as a friend observed, like a chained elephant straining to break free. Jayawardene, as Tania, admirably played Kusal’s wife – a woman clearly rather unhinged and (willing?) hostage to her circumstances, but holding it together for the sake of appearances. Both Chitty’s and Wijesiriwardene’s characters added texture to a play clearly centred around Kusal and Tania. Either through choice of casting or through interpretation, Wijesiriwardene’s character – as I experienced it – often approximated what the actor is and sounds like in real life, and was as a result far less engaging that Chitty, who played out her role, and an interesting past with Kusal, with just the right tension. However, this observation is more to do with the nature of immersive theatre, where one can never fully appreciate all the characters equally in just one evening. Some who followed Yasodha said they encountered a complex, layered character that was well drawn out, which makes me regret I didn’t go for more than one night of the production.
From a production by Welandawe-Prematilleke, much is always expected, for which he has only himself to blame. Sadly, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed as a complete theatre experience. A few elements that worked occasionally, and actors who were good enough, do not a memorable theatre experience make. My significant disappointment with this production is that with a bit more effort Welandawe-Prematilleke’s idea, which was clearly a great one, could have survived into a production that was good, if not great itself. This didn’t happen, and it is our loss as much as it is his. Gunatilleke’s take on ‘Paraya’ was that the play sucked us in, and even as we complimented it, what we were really doing was to acknowledge our complicity in what it critiqued. ‘Close to the Bone’ inspired discussions around motivation, location and history, but overwhelmingly in the context of confusion and frustration around what was missed, could have been done better, failed, was unseen or unheard. Texture, acting, plot and the politics of place even were largely lost, save for a few who were out of sheer luck, at the right time, at the right place, and with a functional audio stream. But are brief glimpses of brilliance and insight enough to rescue a production? Is good acting enough to overcome technological failure? Is a director’s original vision enough to excuse poor execution? Does the shallowness of characters reveal a lack of research, or that character’s own lack of depth? Do we forgive failures of planning by way of supporting experimental theatre, or do we call it out, noting that theatre, especially when ticketed, has a responsibility to an audience to deliver the best possible performance? ‘Close to the Bone’ wanted to critique and help reflect. It largely failed. But the questions it raised, perhaps not just the ones it intended to, resonate. Perhaps that is why it will be remembered – as what could have been, and should have been, instead of what was.
‘Paraya’ was a template of what we should and need to see more of. We now have a production that Welandawe-Prematilleke must not return to, and can learn much from. Perhaps not a bad thing to have these markers so early on in the life of a young director, of whom much is still expected in the future.