Arts and Theatre, Colombo, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation, Vavuniya

A review of The Travelling Circus

The late review is at an advantage, in that it is informed by the published critiques of others and subsequent responses online and in print. In this respect, watching Tracy Holsinger’s The Travelling Circus on the last day of its run was to juxtapose the live performance against reviews that dismissed the production as highfalutin nonsense and others that praised it as compelling theatre.

Tracy’s attempt at devised theatre is without, to my knowledge, precedent in Sri Lankan English drama. With roots in commedia dell’arte, devised theatre is a difficult form, which even seasoned actors balk at since it involves co-creation and improvisation instead of the comparatively more straightforward interpretation, direction and delivery of a script. This dramatic inflorescence requires a high degree of skill and discipline from both director and actor alike. The Travelling Circus, in this respect, was a technical tour de force and, by far, the best production of Tracy’s theatre group Mind Adventures to date. I would rank it amongst the best productions, in any theatrical tradition, I have seen in the past thirteen years. Yet, Tracy’s treatment and selection of subject matter will make this production her most controversial to date, tellingly unappealing to a public more comfortable with a theatre of insouciance based on mindless scripts providing entertainment and escape.

Here there is no escaping the visceral reality of war and its human consequences, even though the action on stage was comically burlesque and satirical. It was a natural fit with advocacy and rare journalism highlighting the plight of those displaced by war in Sri Lanka, through a form and expression essentially political. Concerned with the exploration of psychosocial trauma, violence and human displacement on account of war, the production eschewed easy denouement. The twin denouement to the play, one more hopeful than the other, reminded us that truth is multifaceted, a leitmotif of a production deeply subversive, forcing us to reflect and on occasion, even as we laughed, be ashamed of ourselves.

Other reviews, revealingly by a younger audience demographic and online, have celebrated Tracy’s adroit use of the devised theatre genre to weave a captivating lyricism into the performance. From baila to original rap, brilliant verbal riffs to solos by actors cum singers, The Travelling Circus reflected a diversity of musical form refreshingly original and skilfully combined into the script. One particularly tender moment is when the character of a girl in an IDP camp, after two attempts at song with the word ‘home’ in them shot down by the unscrupulous Camp Warden (marvellously played by Subha Wijesiriwardene), launches into a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” worthy of Dietrich. This particular moment is also one example of rapid changes in tone and pace throughout this production, effortlessly switching from the irreverent and funny to the sublime and reflective.

It’s easy to see why this production would appeal to a younger, web-savvy generation generally apathetic to the complex politics of human displacement and war. It was to see on stage the familiar and loved idiom of mash-ups they create and participate in online – at one level a production that was fun and which they could identify with, defying the generational perception of theatre as stodgy, alien, highfalutin or just plain uncool.

The ‘Travelling Circus of Refugees’, a motley band of fantastic characters that entertained to interrogate, featured actors well-known and emergent. For example, Gihan de Chickera’s signature cadence from Last Bus Eke Kathawa was present in this production as well, and used to good effect. Tehani Chitty as a rather animated cow, and Ruvin de Silva as a boy, clearly traumatised, who spoke through numbers stood out in a cast extremely accomplished in their acting. The absorbing nature of The Travelling Circus is also a reflection of their courage, for this is a production that will be invariably interpreted by those closed off to any perspective other than their own as theatre condoning the violence of the “Other”. The resulting diatribes will attempt to name and shame the production and its actors as those blind to, in particular, the causes for and conduct of war – jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Yet it is precisely here that, to coin a phrase, these critics will lose the plot. Tracy’s play is about a deep humanism that transcends violent factionalism, self-serving definitions of peace, pyrrhic victories and petty justifications for violence. One does not find, thankfully, an ideal or idealised peace in this production. One denouement to the play, after all, has three characters leaving their IDP camp only to be blown up by mines, which in fact is a real challenge impeding resettlement. On the other hand, through devices on stage such as the question tree that sprouts vital questions on war and peace and the purposefully wicked landmine choreography and lyrics, Tracy’s play unflinchingly illuminates the sheer inhumanity in war, where the banality of evil erases borders dividing aggressors and victims. Given the pathetic post-war mainstream media coverage of the lives of IDPs, this production is informed by and critiques ground realities not many in Colombo will be comfortable with, or able to face. The pro-war, Sinhala nationalist lobby will be the most incensed, and understandably so, for this is the same lobby which normalised the internment of a quarter of a million Tamils in squalid conditions for months after the official end of war. If anything, the politics that undergird The Travelling Circus is a mirror of ourselves, and how most of us justified, perhaps out of fatigue and a desperation for its end, levels of hate, racism, violence, killing, abduction and corruption during war that severely eroded an essential ingredient of democracy – a shared humanity. Post-war, the boy who speaks in numbers tells us in his inimitable way, hope of reconciliation and peace can only be engendered through remembering our past. These are not ideas that have great traction in polity and society today.

Nuga Sevana, on the grounds of the Anglican Church in Colombo, served as an ideal venue for this production. The gnarled branches of the nuga tree and, on the day I went, the rain and mud added an atmosphere impossible to recreate indoors. My first experience of theatre at this venue was over a year ago, and the drawbacks evident at the time – ambient noise, poor sound, bad light and an audience at the mercy of the weather – were addressed through discreet sound amplification that worked well, excellent stage lighting and a marquee that all added greatly to the play’s premise as an impromptu circus act.

Tracy Holsinger is not infallible as a director. Her bathetic production of Sharman Macdonald’s After Juliet earlier this year forced a hurried exit from the venue. Yet, the juvenile After Juliet was unbearable because the expectation of theatre going into any of Tracy’s productions is high – very high. She is one of our most gifted and technically proficient directors, with her worst better than what many others consider their best. The Travelling Circus will not be her most viewed, profitable or liked production. It is commendable and memorable precisely because of this. Tracy’s disdain for the “safe” theatre that is commercially viable is refreshing, and also why we must be particularly thankful for the courageous sponsors of this production, who must continue to support the theatre of Mind Adventures and others inspired by or like it. As I noted when I interviewed her on public television earlier this year, Tracy’s theatre is deeply political, anchored to her appreciation that there is, in her own words, a “culture of fear, corruption and mockery of law and order that has been forced upon us by the very people who are supposed to protect morals and principles”. This degree of commitment to and love for professionalism in theatre is rare, especially given that it is not a profession one can pursue as a full time career in our country and because the economics of production and profitability often trump theatrical innovation, form and content.

The second, more hopeful dénouement to the play had the boy who spoke in numbers deliver a rousing speech, completely through numbers. These numbers were significant dates and years in our bloody history, to which discerning members of the audience pegged their own memories, prejudices and perspectives. Thus, to the end, Tracy’s play offered no easy solution, no panacea. And even when The Travelling Circus made us laugh, it quickly compelled us ask why we did so, and at what. To the very end, it sprouted through dramatic device and riveting performance vital questions we needed to ask about our status quo, society, politics, prejudices, history and our avowed humanity.

This is theatre at its best.


For an interview with Tracy Holsinger, click on The Travelling Circus: A different take on IDPs in Sri Lanka

For a longer interview with Tracy speaking on theatre and the arts in Sri Lanka, click on In conversation with Tracy Holsinger


P.S. For an absolutely delightful review of this review, read this post at London, Lanka and drums, arguably Sri Lanka’s most loved blogger.