A play that’s set to challenge players as well as audience

The War Reporter hits the stage from March 25 to 28
By Smriti Daniel, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

A van pulling into the driveway of the Goethe Institute disrupts an award ceremony underway in the portico. The illusion dissipates as the group of well dressed attendees dissolve into laughter, hurrying to move chairs of their ‘stage”. The cast is rehearsing ‘The War Reporter,’ and this moment of spontaneous humour punctuates what would otherwise be a serious play – one whose script proffers startling parallels between a mythical Germany and contemporary Sri Lanka.

Strong presence: Tehani Chitty

It’s everything you’d expect from reading the synopsis – a small, insular community remains wilfully ignorant of the war raging outside its bubble, until the advent of the war reporter, a character who seems driven to serve as the bearer of bad news, a witness to the catastrophic violence and tragedy the conflict has bred. Yet, the play is also a meticulous study of the human condition, of the politics of intimate relationships and of the ways we protect and distract ourselves from those fears we cannot bear to confront.

When the war reporter bursts in on the group gathered at the Institute of Language, she is interrupting what appears to be the highlight of their year. Alternating between distress, bafflement and mockery, the group never seems to know quite what to make of her near incoherent report. She tells them the war is playing out “all over... in the gardens around here,” to which one of the characters, Mr. Mückenmüller responds, “I must admit, for a war it is quite quiet over there.”

When the reporter talks of inventing numbers, a death toll to lend credence to her story, their response is laughter, as if she had made a particularly witty comment. “No one really knows what is happening at the front – that is only experienced by the soldier and the communities that live there. But here, in the garden, people experience it in different ways,” says Niren Neydorff who plays Robert Mückenmüller.

The war reporter’s inability to serve as an articulate witness adds another layer to the story - “it’s interesting because she’s someone whose job it is to be a master of the language,” reflects Minari Fernando, who plays the thirty-year-old Iris Schwerdtfeger, the Secretary of the institute. Language, as art, as a tool of expression, forms a lovely motif in the play, as its characters meditate on its beauty and its value, even as they agonise over what they perceive as threats to its purity. Even the idea of a small institute of dubious lineage claiming the grand title as guardian of a language has its real world echoes – “I think we can draw a lot of parallels here,” says Ashini Fernando, who plays the diabolical Mrs. Fütterer.

“A language must be protected… isn’t it so Mrs. Fütterer? And that’s a noble task. When one takes care of a language and protects it, no foreign language can slowly sneak in,” declares Iris in the opening scene. It’s an idea that is expressed again and again by the other characters. “The play explores the hegemony of language, and how language becomes a tool of separation of us from them, of culture, of identity....and I think that’s something that is relevant to many contexts,” says Minari.

The play also brings into sharp focus the failings of language, as when Mr. Sommers (Chinthaka Fernando), declares “Mrs. Schwerdtfeger, how inadequate our language is to describe what man designs against man.”

Timely offering: Directors Jake (above) and Ruhanie (below)

The play is an ensemble piece, and each character has a strong, distinctive presence. But the war reporter never gains a name beyond her designation, and despite the incredible energy that Tehani Chitty expends as her character, she has an amorphous quality, a raw vulnerability.

For the war reporter, challenging status quo is as good a motivation as any, but her desire to talk about the conflict appears to be an almost visceral thing. “Whatever she’s saying affects her deeply, her reaction is almost physical. When she’s telling her stories, she’s reliving it, she’s looking to these people for some sort of guidance, some sort of aid, even as she’s informing them,” says Tehani.

In one particularly memorable scene, Tehani bursts onto the stage to deliver a near apocalyptic vision of the world outside the garden. She brings an animal vitality to her performance, advancing upon the crowd, scattering the polite gathering. As the scene unfolds, the tension rises, until the war reporter is on the floor, writhing in the grip of her narrative. Her sentences are burnished by her angst – and the reactions of those around mirror it, until that inevitable moment where their minds’ turn away from the ‘mad girl’.

Commenting on the demanding nature of her role, Tehani admits that she “likes the physicality” of the war reporter. For Tehani, Niren and even Ashini, their roles stretch their boundaries as performers. Their directors – Ruhanie Perera and Jake Oorloff of the Floating Space theatre company – asked her to begin constructing her character not from the internal but from the external. The result is the larger than life interpretation that Tehani relishes.

“In Sri Lanka the benchmark for acting is naturalistic acting – and I don’t quite agree with that,” says Jake frankly, adding that both he and Ruhanie wanted their actors to experiment with physicality. “As the play unfolds, everyone else seems to take on that fervent pitch that Tehani has,” says Ruhanie. Though the two initially picked the play with only a synopsis to go by, they’re the first to admit that they were startled by how relevant the piece was. The script, translated by Asoka de Zoysa for Floating Space, has been subject to many edits – “the performance has to reflect the cast and the we’ve come to the point where Ruhanie will think it and I will say it,” says Jake of their successful partnership.

The two directors hope that the play will challenge and provoke their audience, as it does their cast. Tehani will tell you that “this play very much reflects where we’re living, at this point in time of our history,” and perhaps that is what the audience will take away. Ashini, however, expects we will have to work for it – “you can ask the questions,” she says smiling, “but you won’t always find the answers.”

The play also stars Venuri Perera as Helga Kanopke, Imani Perera as Susanne Mückenmüller, Lilanka Botejue as Olga, Gehan Blok as Mr. Jossi and Christopher Stephen as Bernard Fütterer. The performance runs from March 25 to 28 at the German Cultural Institute from 7:30 p.m. onwards. Tickets are available at the venue.

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