Quick, someone punch me hard… I must be dreaming – I went for a StageLight&Magic production and came away disturbingly comforted and comfortingly disturbed. Can’t remember the last time that happened with SL&M, dears, so I guess it is a good thing in the end? Ah, enough of all this light banter! Here, at last, [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Plays that cast long shadows

Wijith DeChickera got great pleasure from pulling out his own nails in response to this existential bone-cruncher

Quick, someone punch me hard… I must be dreaming – I went for a StageLight&Magic production and came away disturbingly comforted and comfortingly disturbed. Can’t remember the last time that happened with SL&M, dears, so I guess it is a good thing in the end?

Ah, enough of all this light banter! Here, at last, was what reality-starved mainstream theatre audiences had been craving for, oh, eons. To be sure, more mindfully adventurous theatre companies had, for a while at least, wandered away from the Wendt in search of the holy grail of Colombo English language theatre: A play that would please all audiences despite being staged at an avant-garde venue (perhaps, because of it) – and could still rake in the all-important patronage and sponsorship shekels. Too many such tries had come a-cropper.

The cast of the play

To be fair, SL&M had for long (so long) wowed suburban theatre tyros with superficial razzmatazz and farcical interpretations of dark satires and sophisticated scripts. And the hoi polloi had lapped it up without either a bang for their buck or whimper of protest. Now one feels they have come into their own with a simultaneously hot, chilling, numbing (in a good way) production of an existentialist masterpiece by Sartre.
Men Without Shadows is arguably a poor translation. The 1946 drama, retelling events set in Vichy France in 1944, was originally titled in the French as Morts Sans Sépultures. This renders directly as ‘Deaths Without Burials’. Or more poetically, ‘The Unburied Dead’. Well, whether it is the ‘Dead Unburied’ or Hommes Sans Ombres (a pun on Men Without Shadows that its translators missed), the play is deeply morbid, harrowingly reminiscent of recent events in our own history and suitably grave material for a theatre company now apparently intent on resurrecting its image as a dramatic powerhouse to be reckoned with.
Once bitten, twice shy. Or twice bitten, three times lucky. Having sat with clenched fists through the second slaughtering of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and/but earnestly desiring a resurrection of Julius Caesar – the Anatomy of an Assassination, we walked into the darkened auditorium with predictable apprehension. Wait a minute… “darkened auditorium”? Hallo, hello, hullo, what’s going on here, then? Suffice it to say that the absence of light in the last fifteen minutes leading up to the curtain-raiser was a stroke of sheer genius. It set the tone for this prison play and study in pain very well indeed. That it prevented the customary chatter of indiscreet socialites and the thespian hoi polloi who only go to the Wendt to see who else came was a bonus. Well done, SL&M!
Happy to report, dears, that none of our misgivings materialised. The script was taut and the interpretation tight. The diction was clear. The delivery nicely underplayed where a tendency to overact could have hamstrung a delicate chemistry between captors and captives. And the body language sharp all round (except for one or two sloppy jailors and jailbirds who overplayed in bits and slouched in others). But we’re quibbling again. Here was the kind of grim, grown-up, gutsy, gritty, outing by a talented cast and skeleton crew that makes the heart glad and the bladder weak. If the torture scenes had lasted any longer than they nail-bitingly did, many members of the audience may have screamed out aloud from the sheer painful pleasure of it. It reminded us all that as far as sanctioned terror, rape, resistance to tyranny, and turning away from rottenness go, we are a nation of onlookers. On three bloodcurdling nights in Colombo, there was not much to separate the victims from the voyeurs of this type of violence. It reminded those of us not too old, cold, or blasé to forget of both the northern and southern holocausts that landmark our country’s recent history.
It didn’t matter that the play was set towards the end of World War II. It didn’t matter much that the town mentioned was Grenoble and not Gannoruwa or Girandurukotte or Galenbindunuwewa. It didn’t matter at all that the conflict was between fellow countrymen: the Free French resistance (five captured guerrillas) against their Vichy French captors (three vicious-in-their own-way Vichy French officers, an innocuous but deadly interrogator’s instrument AKA bludgeoner and a gaoler-guard). It mattered a little that the uniforms of the torturers didn’t immediately help one to decide whether this was the tag end of a world war or the deep end of a local insurrection or insurgency. It mattered quite a bit that heroism of some of the resistance and cowardice of most of the interrogators struck painful chords in our collective consciousness. It mattered most that whether to die or to live; to live and let live or to live and let die; to do the right thing for the right reason, the wrong reason, or no reason at all – all made perfect sense during a breathless hush that lasted a little over two hours on three dry dark dusty nights in our imagination and our national memory.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher to make men and women think about being and nothingness. And the role of personal responsibility of thought and action in making sense of a phenomenologically meaningless universe. As a playwright, like yours truly the reviewer, he was wordy. But every word dropped like a stone into the receptive wells of the audience’s heightened consciousness. For a wartime play and a human drama that stretched the spiritual muscles to the upper register of pain and existential agony, the script was remarkably light on explosive language in general and expletives in particular. It is a cognitive play, a challenging one to watch – and stage. But SL&M brought it off to full houses on a trio of evenings to their credit and that of Colombo’s increasingly socially-aware (we hope…) theatre audiences. (Just how far can one go in expressing one’s personal joy before one becomes patronising?)
A word of praise all-round for a clearly motivated, sharp in portrayal, tight on time and timing cast. I would, perhaps unfairly by an evidently closely knit set of players, single out three for particular approbation. Dominic Kellar, a thoroughly sophisticated performance as a cynical chief interrogator; obviously the man to watch in terms of the play’s unfolding tension and his own personal development as a character actor (“put that in your report”). Bimsara Premaratne, as the one woman in the play, was demonstrably the strongest character in the darkened cell downstairs as well as in the well-lit torturer’s chair upstairs. She was well nuanced. Rajiv Ponweera, a deceptively sleek and softly insistent interrogator (truly the most dangerous man on every level with a cool, cruel, chilling turn) was well deserving of the last shade of the last single spotlight which ended the play.
Kudos also to SL&M for maturely eschewing egregiously manufactured “standing ovations” that have plagued local amateur productions of late. You deserved it, ironically enough, but denied yourself that inappropriate self-indulgence in a production that smacked too much of grim, grimy, grimacing reality to resort to cheap theatrics. And besides, we were all too shell-shocked to do anything but remain seated – rigid and frozen but hot under the collar, hands wet with sweat (or was it blood or tears, dears?). The curtain call was suitably sober, but not sombre (Kellar playing to the cellar or gallery).
A special word of appreciation for neophyte director (for mainline productions) Sashane Perera, moonlighting as an energetic torturer. Très formidable, mon ami! No two words he relished administering the tourniquet torture to Chamath Arambewela, who must be admired for both his fortitude while suffering excruciating agony and his fickleness after strangling a fellow prisoner for fear the weakling would betray a vital secret. There was this scene ‘downstairs’ in which one of the five is mercy-murdered by his compatriots, which in a way was more horrifying than the most brutal and bloody beatings ‘upstairs’. Which reminds me to mention a practically inspired split-level set, with office cum torture chamber atop the prison cell. A creative design, marred only by the misadventure that prime seats upfront in the auditorium may have been disadvantaged when craning their necks to view the upper level action. Row J, where we were, was just about right – thank you! Balcony may have fared better?
No review of even the most inspired interpretation of an insightful play would be complete without an odd quibble. One was that good throwaway lines were literally thrown away instead of being delivered with some panache. “We tried to justify our lives and we have failed. Now we are going to die, and we cannot justify our deaths.” Also some inconsistency in accents and their sustainability! We are also hard-pressed not to mention a tender scene in which a resistance leader tries to win his lover and fellow cellmate back. Frankly, my dear, if I were her, I would have strangled you instead of that other poor fellow, her brother, whose death she engineers! A case of miscasting or injudicious underplaying?
All said, a tough act to master; put on with flair, but also maturity. Some of us found out about ourselves for the first time… Others were lost in the existential gap between being and becoming. Drama Colombo is growing up. Happy we were on hand to gasp and groan at its gory coming of age.

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