You go to the city to see the law. Upon arrival outside the building, there is a guard who says “You may not pass without permission”, you notice that the door is open, but it closed enough for you to not see anything (the law). You point out that you can easily go into the building, and the guard agrees. Rather than be disagreeable, however, you decide to wait until you have permission. You wait for many years, and when you’re an old, shrivelled wreck, you get yourself to ask:

“During all the years I’ve waited here, no-one else has tried to pass in to see the law, why is this?”, and the guard answers:

“It is true that no-one else has passed here, that is because this door was always meant solely for you, but now, it is closed forever”.

He then proceeds to close the door and calmly walk away.

Franz Kafka, ‘Beyond the Law’

Designed and directed by Jayampathi Guruge and scripted by Ruwanthie de Chickera, ‘Walking Path’, performed recently at the Lionel Wendt offered an interesting critique of Colombo’s post-war beautification drive. Though I am thanked in the programme note, I only met with the director and his troupe once, very early on in the conceptualisation of the play. In our interaction that day, my input was informed by a rather long and public online interaction with the owner of one of Colombo’s leading restaurants on Facebook, over an article by Subha Wijesiriwardena published on this site. Subha noted that,

We live in a country where our all basic frameworks are defined by the government: ‘private’ as defined by them, ‘public’ as defined by them, ‘safe’ as defined by them, ‘dangerous’ as defined by them. The government’s control over urban development is simply another way of exerting control over the way we live.

This greatly irked the restaurateur, who claimed that concerns over the way Colombo looked at present could only come from a position of being ungrateful the war was over. Subha and the rest of us who hold deeply critical positions around the Ministry of Defence led plans to beautify the city were essentially seen, by this restaurateur, as killjoys – unable and unwilling to enjoy what the city had become, and hell-bent on spoiling the fun for others. Though wrong on so many counts, the restaurateur was spot on when noting those critical of, questioning or opposed to the militaristic beautification of Colombo were on the margins of society – largely peripheral, at best, to plans already well-made and deeply laid.

Guruge’s central and considerable challenge going in to this production was to address a society that frequented Colombo’s ordered public spaces without ever questioning their use of these spaces, or how they are constructed. Employing just sound and movement instead of spoken language to communicate Guruge’s vision on stage was a bold move. The strength of ‘Walking Path’ is in how it can potentially appeal to those who frequent Colombo’s public spaces, who are their own class. In contrast to the inimitable Galle Face which has for decades brought into the same space a diverse cross section of society, new public spaces in and around Colombo are frequented by those for whom it is important to exercise entirely alone yet in public, work up a sweat in branded sportswear and drive away in A/C comfort. Guruge’s critique was aimed at this group, and therein lies the rub. Whereas this segment of society would love to go see, be seen at and enjoy a Pusswedilla show as their contribution to critical dissent, ‘Walking Path’ offered a more serious, unsettling critique geared to inspiring reflection over ribald laughter, which was immediately evident from the number of empty seats downstairs at the Wendt. Perhaps indicative of society’s priorities and dominant perceptions, filling seats remains an enduring challenge for theatre that grapples with socio-economic, political and cultural critique in a serious manner, even as comedic productions, running for many more nights, never fail to fill the Wendt’s luminous numbers.

At one and a half hours, ‘Walking Path’ was too long, but not disastrously so. Pace and focus in some of the scenes should have been tighter, and the length of the play could have been used to better effect. While I’ll get to this later, what for me was the chief failure of the production – and it is a large one – was the lack of any nuance in its depiction of the military as those responsible for the erection and maintenance of Colombo’s new public spaces. The Army was depicted as caricature, a shallowness that bears no relation to the spectrum of their involvement with and perceptions of beautification. Guruge’s idea of militarisation was to suggest that everyone in the Army, all the time, behaved the same. While his characters acted out their parts very well, what was missing was any depiction of or questioning around how the military itself, especially the lower ranks, may have varied responses and perceptions around that which they are ordered to do. There have been numerous occasions where I have walked through Colombo Racecourse on Reid Avenue observing men in military fatigues looking yearningly or forlornly at what was on display in shop windows, and what was on sale inside them. The gap between the military men who clean the glass tanks at the Arcade Independence Square, literally beneath the feet of those who frequent the place, and those who eat Kaema Sutra could not be more stark, mirroring the gap between those responsible for cleaning Colombo’s new public spaces and those who frequent them. The military presence – physically and conceptually – in public spaces remains invisible to many, which Guruge has rightfully embraced yet wrongfully extended into a monochromatic depiction of the military’s own take on beautification. In an otherwise insightful and incisive production the inability, this is a major flaw. A lack of context marred other scenes. Scene 3 – ‘Who changed the lion? (Grrr) – would be largely indecipherable to anyone who hadn’t walked (or jogged) around Independence Square. And yet, this was one of the most compelling scenes of the play for those who familiar with the stout lion statues, symbolic of, in the play, a dominant, stentorian mentality combined with the violence of the deep state. Also utterly compelling was Scene 8 – ‘My selfie with my friends’ – depicting a soul destroying loneliness in the midst of friends, and a broader public, exacerbated by technology and unaddressed by the new public spaces which do little or nothing to engender meaningful social interaction (a point made again in the scene ‘The world in my phone’). Some aspects of the play could have been done better, particularly in communicating the sheer monotony and eviscerating boredom associated with the maintenance of these walking paths. Not unlike Cage’s 4’ 33’ composition, Guruge could have more powerfully communicated through inaction and silence the invisible yet essential lives of those who maintained these spaces, doing the same thing day in and day out, come rain or shine and for a pittance.

Ultimately, plays like ‘Walking Path’ ask us to observe, question and care. This isn’t easy. On one night of the production, Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Reality’ was played before the start of the show, which framed quite neatly for me the thrust of the play – suggesting that the conceptualisation, construction and subsequent use of walking paths in and around Colombo is a new collective unconscious, co-created by the supine acceptance, by so many, of what key architects of war tell us what a society at peace must be defined by – not a blade of grass more, or less. Kafka’s short story offers another unsettling dystopia disguised as desirable – that in celebrating our new walking paths, we remain unable or unwilling to explore, just outside the familiar, why some doors remain closed, right in front of our eyes.

See photos from the production of ‘Walking Path’ in full screen here.