A National Treasure

The National Performing Arts Theatre – to open soon – is the best and biggest in South Asia.
Stephen Prins visits the state-of-the-art venue. Pix by M. A. Pushpa Kumara

Now that The National Performing Arts Theatre is a work in progress no longer but a completed architectural fact, a colossal, visually stunning fait accompli, everyone wants a peek inside. We are agog, for we are about to get our first peek. Here on a private visit, we are waiting at the main gate to be admitted to the sprawling premises.

Recently, after what felt like ages, the outer wrappings – corrugated sheets on a surrounding fence – were removed. The theatre is now revealed from top to bottom for all to see and admire. Set in a choice part of the city, and towering over just about everything else, the state-of-the-art venue is good to go.
The major construction work – the theatre took four years to build – ended a few months ago, and only some peripheral tidying up remains to be done. A gang of workers is preparing the road and pavement immediately outside the premises. Road rollers are flattening layers of rock stones, gusts of gritty dust are blowing our way, and a hot, stinging smell of molten tar hangs heavy in the air.

Dancer-choreographer Channa Wijayawardena, left , a member of the theatre’s board of artistic advisers, shows his colleague in music, US-based concert pianist Rohan De Silva, the theatre’s facilities.

Within the premises, beyond the main gate, all is smooth, finished, gleaming, and severely sharp-looking. The sense of great expectations is strong. The colossal National Performing Arts Theatre is a high-value gift from China. It cost Rs. 3,080 million to build. Most of the building materials came from China. Nominally, it is a place for music, dance and drama, but publicity photographs suggest the venue could host other, non-performing arts events too, such as symposiums and award ceremonies, much like China’s other landmark gift to the city of Colombo – the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), built in 1973. Both are magnificent structures, and both commanding presences in the urban landscape.

Previously under a ministry, the theatre is now directly under the President and the Presidential Secretariat, and its administration, security and upkeep has been entrusted to the Three Armed Forces – Army, Air Force, and Navy. The grand opening is scheduled for October.

A swathe of concrete surface, smooth as a rollerblade course, sweeps up to a flight of wide steps rising to the theatre’s elevated main entrance. The glass, wood and concrete structure glitters in the noon sun. From the main road, the venue looks like a gigantic fluted glass vase, waiting to be filled with something special – music, magic, a mystical, cosmic experience.

From on high, should you enjoy a privileged aerial view, you will see a structure that looks like a giant stylized lotus, petals unfolded and open to the sky. According to the National Performing Arts Theatre website, the theatre’s outline is inspired by the lotus ponds of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Right on time, a military vehicle draws up at the main gate and a tall, burly, friendly looking Army officer steps out. This is Colonel Senarath Niwunhella. With him is Lieutenant-Colonel Wishwajith Vidyananda. Both are officers of the Gajaba Regiment, and both, along with Colonel Harendra Peiris, who will arrive later, have been entrusted with the job of administering the venue. The affable Colonel Niwunhella is clearly enjoying his work. “You can be confident,” he beamingly assures us, “that with the Three Forces in charge, the National Performing Arts Theatre will be a very efficient, very stylish operation.”

The auditorium can seat 1,288 persons, and performances can go high tech

Lt. Colonel Wishwajith is tasked with showing us around the inside of the theatre. We cross the esplanade and enter the building through a side door that leads to the back of the theatre. We stand in the wings of the grand stage, which is in darkness. We cross the wooden floorboards and stand centre stage.

The space on all sides and above, right up to the ceiling, is enormous. It is like being in the middle of a football field at night. On either side, black stage curtains recede into the distance. In front of us is the cavernous dark of the unlit auditorium. Lt. Colonel Wishwajith gives an order, and a second later the auditorium is gloriously illuminated. It is a magical moment.

We walk up to the edge of the stage and gaze out on a sea of empty seats, waiting to be filled. A capacity audience would have 1,288 persons present. Above the ground floor, which descends in tiers, are two balconies. The setting is wood-panelled, upholstered and carpeted; the colour scheme plum and walnut brown, with silver accents. The ambience is luxurious, warm, inviting. The theatre feels like another world.

Finally, Sri Lankan artistes and audiences have the venue they have been dreaming of – one good and big enough to accommodate the best and biggest of dance troupes, drama groups, and music ensembles, including symphony orchestras.

Lt. Colonel Wishwajith points out special features, such as the series of split levels the stage can assume to suit performance requirements; equipment for spectacular lighting effects; facilities for dramatic aerial/air-borne special effects; a surround-sound system artistically hidden behind decorative metal screens.

“The latest in theatre technology is here,” Lt. Colonel Wishwajith says with pride. “We have had a few artistes visiting, and their first impressions were ecstatic. One was a dancer who spontaneously broke out into a dance across the stage. Another was a musician who fell to his knees and kissed the floor of the stage. They had tears in their eyes. It’s been an emotional experience for them. They say it’s as good as anything you will find in a lot of Western countries, and a lot better than most performing arts venues in the East or Far East. The Chinese designers have incorporated features found in the best of performing arts venues in China.”

The theatre design incorporates Sri Lankan motifs with the best features of performing arts venues in China

From the stage we head up by lift to the first balcony, “reserved only for Very Important Persons”. A young officer, supervised by Lieutenant Shirantha Fernando of the Navy, carries a bag filled with square wood panels on each of which hang dozens of keys, which jingle like an exotic musical instrument as he unlocks door after door. We make our way through a maze of carpeted lobbies, landings, and corridors, past dozens of dressing rooms, and up to the second balcony, and then on to the roof.
The roof is dominated by a central amphitheatre, with a concrete stage facing a half-circle of curved concrete blocks for seating.

The smaller performance space looks good for intimate drama, dance and music. One can picture an ancient Greek or Roman play enacted here, or a small instrumental ensemble performing a programme of Western classical chamber music.

Back on ground level, we are greeted by Colonel Harendra Peiris, who has just arrived. Colonel Peiris, burly and tall like Colonel Niwunella, looks, like the other military officers, please with his theatre posting. “You can be quite sure the National Theatre will be looked after with all the discipline and surveillance skills our men can bring to the job,” he says.

Crossing the esplanade, we look back. It is good to know we will be visiting the venue soon, and for years to come, in anticipation of high quality performing arts events. And it is good to know the National Performing Arts Theatre is in good, capable hands.

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