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Manoeuvring power relations and negotiating the language of legal discourse – these are central themes of “Contempt” a reading presented by Floating Space, to be held this Saturday (July 15th, 2017) at the British Council.
Though “Contempt” is the brainchild of Delhi-based playwright and Assistant Professor of Jindal Law School, Danish Sheikh (who will be present at the event), the issues the play grapples with resonate deeply in Sri Lanka as well. Drawing from legal transcripts in the landmark case of Suresh Kumar Koushal v Naz Foundation, it explores the language of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activity deemed “against the order of nature”.
Riffing off the legal term “contempt of court” the play examines how people encounter contempt – not just in courts of law but also in everyday life.
“One of the interesting things about the play is that it echoes actual trial transcripts. There is something to be said for the fact that this is not imaginative language, but rather an imagination rooted in existing legal discourse,” founder of Floating Space Ruhanie Perera said. “We understand the manoeuvring of where we expect justice to be in existence, what is invested in a word, and how that word becomes discourse.”
Section 377 has obvious parallels with Sections 365 and 365a of Sri Lanka’s own Penal Code, and in fact was based off India’s iteration. “What constitutes carnal intercourse against the order of nature? What does that phrase mean, and where does the idea of nature come from? These are fundamental questions when you look at Code 365 in the law,” said founder and Director of Floating Space, Jake Oorloff.
These and other questions have become central as Sri Lanka plans to embark on a process of constitutional reform – a process which has been met with much opposition and scepticism, notably from religious leaders. Civil society activists have repeatedly called for the repeal of Section 365 and 365A in the past, as it leads to the discrimination and oppression of the LGBTIQ community. With Pride celebrations recently being held in Colombo, the reading of “Contempt” comes at an opportune time. However, Ruhanie says that the decision to hold this reading evolved out of an on-going conversation with the playwright about his work, which went on for over a year.
As an Associate Law Professor, Sheikh’s research focuses on the legal regulation of gender and sexuality, and the intersection of law and the humanities. “He’s reflective of his own practice in a playwriting context. There is a certain hierarchy and language present, and an on-going power play that is interestingly dealt with, but life is oddly absent.” The play does see the judges grappling with the implications of the wording of the statute, and affidavits are presented as monologues, resulting in the audience confronting a person who is directly impacted by the legal jargon. “At the end of the day, the standpoint is from the law, and the question becomes, how do people access it? This is something Contempt interestingly deals with” Jake said.
Floating Space says their approach to theatre has always had an activist bent. “This is just because of who we are as individuals – especially when it comes to political consciousness.”
This is not the first production featuring a queer character – a past production, OverWrite (which Groundviews helped conceptualise and produce) featured a queer character as well. “We see this play as an extension of that past work.”
“I think it’s alright for a theatre company to take a play on with a central queer theme and perform it sensitively and with commitment,” Jake said. While there has been queer expression in plays, they tend to perpetuate stereotypes or peddle clichés – the queer person as comic relief. This extends to school productions as well, which can be deeply problematic as there are often youth struggling with their gender identity and sexual orientation, who can only understand themselves against these characters.
“We have an unfortunate legacy of othering – from ethnic minorities to linguistic minorities and now queer identity. Any identity which is alienated or isolated are often othered on stage – becoming a figure to laugh at. That’s problematic,” Jake points out. As such, Floating Space has included, for instance, sexual and reproductive health activist Bhoomi Harendran in their cast. “We didn’t want someone who identified as male or female to play a transgender character – it was non-negotiable for us.”
“Contempt” is Floating Space’s newest attempt to promote visibility of the queer community with complexity and nuance. “Contempt” has been presented as a part of the ongoing “Footnotes” series, which kicked off in 2012. A play on the practice of footnoting theatre work, Footnotes was held once a month, with the company reading from different scripts. Floating Space has always attempted to push boundaries, focusing on experimental work, including examining absurd theatre as an aesthetic. Footnotes saw a broadening of Floating Space’s audience, as many who attend this series don’t usually watch theatre productions. In the past, Floating Space has featured Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Sarah Kane. Danish’s work will be an attempt to include more discussion from the South Asian region.
“Contempt” also ties in to Floating Space’s interest in original work, and its philosophy to create different spaces of meeting, between artists, scholars, and different audiences. It also encourages collaboration, working in conversations that encourage unconventional thinking about ideas like space, or silence, central themes Floating Space has grappled with for years. Incidentally, is the 10th year of the collective’s existence. Currently in residence at the British Council, Floating Space has a number of productions lined up for the year (including a Sinhalese translation of Forgetting November and ultimately, a performance of “Contempt”) before participating in a fellowship at Cornell University.
Readers who enjoyed this article might find “Floating Spaces: Theatre and Censorship in Sri Lanka” and “Bringing Politics to the Stage: Observations on Post War Political Theatre in Sri Lanka” enlightening.