10 April 2015

‘Suddek Oba Amathai’: a soliloquy-feast

Udayasiri Wickramaratne has for years entertained us with wit, creativity, philosophy and his understanding of political economy through his columns in the Divaina, especially Aarthika Vihilu (Economic Jokes, written under the name ‘Andarei Smith – Grandson of Adam Smith’) and ‘Aadaraye Shabdakoshaya’ (Dictionary of Love).  He translated into Sinhala for the Divaina the weekly column on economic issues penned by the late Dr. Jayantha Kelegama (writing as ‘Kanes’) and later started his own column. 

Both Aarthika Vihilu and Aadaraye Shabdakoshaya (e.g. ‘Marriage Registrar: the person who writes love’s death certificate’) provide ample evidence of Udayasiri’s talent at word-turning.  The economy and sharp observation naturally describe the poetic potential which found expression in a collection titled ‘Dawal Sihinen Dutu Kumariya’ (A princess who arrived in a daydream).

His literary CV includes two plays; Eelanga Javanikaavak Nethi Naatyayak (1991) which won many National Youth Awards for theatre that year and Thunveni Lokaya (1990) selected to the second round of the State Drama Festival. While a student at Colombo University, Udayasiri was a member of a street theatre group called Paara which incorporated various elements of traditional drama such as Sokari

Endowed with a sympathetic eye for things rural but one that is not over-weighted by awe or romanticism and therefore containing an incisive edge, Udayasiri’s reflections on ‘village’ life is ethnographic and constitutes in my opinion  a ‘must’ reading for sociology students interested in figuring out the ‘logic’ of rural social processes in Sri Lanka. 

Kiri Amma (Grandma) and Gamen Upan Katha (Stories born of the village) are more than ‘sociological snippets’ though. They have literary value.  Udayasiri, in short, knows how to tell a story and this is evident in his longer narrative, Swarnamali Maharaja, which is an easy-read version of the complex issues that makes their way into the troubled mind of Prince Dutugemunu during his period of exile. The author weaves in to the main narrative the most telling strands in the historical transcripts contained in folklore and gives us a fresh and compelling version of related events and personalities.

Swarnamali Maharaja (that’s Kavantissa, by the way) is a soliloquy of sorts and it is easy to understand how Udayasiri came to adopt that format in theatre.  His latest play, which is in fact a collection of not totally unrelated ‘playlets’, Suddek Oba Amathai (A white man addresses you), performed for the first time (deliberately) on All Fools’ Day, April 1, 2010, at the Lumbini Theatre, comprises of 4 ‘talks’.  We are addressed by a white man (played by Naveen Pradeep Udawela), by history (Jayalath Manoratne), by a woman (Madhani Malwattage) and by ‘a man who lives in fear’ (Keerthi K Ratnayake).
The format itself was ‘new’ to audience but not new to ‘tradition’, according to Udayasiri.  He claimed, in a pre-show conversation that we are a society that is used to listening to lectures and that is why there are many who are glued to their television sets listening to politicians talking shop.  We are used to listening to bana and to jathaka katha.  True.  It worked by and large, although the script clearly needed extensive editing to obtain a tighter and therefore more dramatic articulation of idea. 

In short, it need not have taken 2.5 hours to say all the things that were said.  All the points made (and they were excellent observations by the way) could have been contained in a production that took not more than an hour and a half, I felt.  As it happened, elaboration and repetition took something away from the dramatic power of Udayasiri’s penchant for economy in statement. 

A sudda has a lot to say, as do ‘history’, a woman and a man who is terrified.  That’s several libraries worth of books I would say, to give some perspective to the challenge that Udayasiri had set himself.  Still, there was carelessness in stringing together various aspects that the playwright had chosen to privilege. The movement from topic to topic was jerky at times.  The best rendered of the 4 segments was history’s soliloquy, and that’s thanks to both power of script as well as Jayalath Manoratne’s incomparable stage-presence. 

Manoratne was so good that the others appeared weak.  Not that they were terrible, no.  Soliloquys are not easy to dramatize.  Even Brutus’ soliloquy on the abuse of greatness in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ was less than two dozen lines and could be got through in less than 4 minutes. These were longer affairs and the challenge was naturally greater.  Naveen Pradeep Udawela could not bridge the rockiness of the script in places although the ideas and the poetry embedded in the script helped hold the attention of the audience.

Manoratne went next with ‘history’.  Udayasiri had thrown in enough song and historical anecdote was laced with reference to the political present in deft and clever ways for Manoratne to deliver.  It was a great piece of entertainment with Manoratne drawing extensively from his considerable range of dramatic resources.  Long, yes, but there was no dip in intensity.   

Keerthi K Ratnayake was both ‘a man who lives in fear’ and ‘a man in a hurry’, it seemed.  Udayasiri had deliberately written a fast-paced, (too) short piece which had a lot of potential in content but appeared far too repetitive. 

Madhani Malwattage was constrained by the script. It was slow and the point made were convoluted.  She played her part well.  Perhaps she suffered from the fact that she made her appearance almost two hours after the play started.  There was too much soliloquy by that time, perhaps. 

Let’s talk about content. The title reminded me of one of Udayasiri’s aarthika jokes, written in the early part of this decade, translated thus: “Some people have cats as pets, some have parrots and some others have rabbits; but all of us and not just ‘some people’ have a white man in our minds as a pet.” I expected an anti-Colonial rant.  I was disappointed.  Instead I got a far more nuanced and politically far more productive and smarter rendition of the post-colonial challenge. 

The points made threw one back to Dharmapala’s thesis, that the weapons of the enemy should not be cursed, but secured and employed to good effect.  The issue of taking on coloniality includes a firm resolution not to see things in black and white, pardon the pun. There is always ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and Udayasiri speaks about both, in ‘sudda’ and in ‘kalla’. 

History is a bad word.  It looks too ‘singular’ when in fact it is plural, as in ‘histories’.  Udayasiri makes some excellent points on this aspect of the discipline/exercise. He also points out that history is one of the least examined areas and observes that for this very reason this is where we can find the most tasty morsels of ‘news’.  It is an invitation to those who are ignorant of history and a challenge to those who would rather not delve into the past, especially because they are uncomfortable with the fact that they are not part of the past or are too ‘recent’ to warrant the claims they tend to make. 

The man who is in fear is me. It is you.  I found this to be the philosophically most satisfying of the 4 segments.  The fear is not about not being able to be honest, truthful and ‘above board’, but the opposite, of telling the truth by mistake or by doing the right thing accidentally.  This is Udayasiri having fun at our expense.  He delves into that secret place deep within us where we hide all the things we don’t want others to know about.  It is the ‘me’ of that place that is scared, that speaks to myself my fears about tripping and divulging that whose revelation would make things uncomfortable.  It’s a reflection on the ‘final frontier’ of a human being. It is too heavy for soliloquy though and was rushed through so fast that it ended up just touching surface sensibilities and a crass reference to the everyday politics of being rather than a serious exploration of a serious element of the human condition. 

The weakest was the address by a woman.  Udayasiri makes the point that ‘gender’ is not a synonym for ‘woman’ and lampoons the notion of ‘equality’ when difference is a reality one cannot get around.  It is a light exploration of man-woman things.  He makes some sharp observations about things sexist and patriarchal, but left me with the feeling that he was being lazy, that it was half-done and thrown in to make up the numbers (pages, minutes or whatever).

All four, are books that are waiting to be written. Together they constitute a play that needs to be worked on.  Given format and the characters of playwright and player, I am sure it will be done and will get better. 

Overall, it is a fine effort and an introduction of a fresh format to a genre that seems to have run out of new ideas.   In terms of style, it can be improved, and I am sure this will happen in subsequent productions.  In terms of content, Udayasiri is only giving us the tip of the iceberg.  It is too tempting not to explore.  Speaking strictly for myself, as a freelance writer, Udayasiri has given me a wealth of material.  That 2.5 hours at the Lumbini was time very well spent.

'True love and true lovers celebrated' is a review of Udayasiri Wickramaratne’s latest play, 'චිත්‍රපටයකට සැබෑ පෙම් යුවලක් ඕනෑ කර තිබේ’ (‘Chitrapatayakata sabae pem yuvalak ona kara thibe’ or ‘True lovers needed for a film’)

Read also, '"Suddek" and the parameters of the theatrical' for a comment on Udayasiri's experimental efforts in Sri Lankan theater.  

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This review was first published in the Sunday Observer, April 18, 2010.