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16th May 1999
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Ernest Macintyre says the cricket experience should be channelled into theatre

Hora Hora, umpire hora!

In mid-November last year I was part of a seminar on Theories of Western Theatre from Aristotle to Growski, with Kelaniya University students in the company of Gamini Haththotuwegama and the other lecturers of the Drama Department. When we arrived at Bertolt Brecht and discussed the German playwright's concern about the large scale desertions from theatre to sports in his country during his early period, I asked Gamini whether the Lumbini Theatre was as popular with young people as it was in our youth, or whether young audiences were now deserting to cricket. Through his laughter Gamini came out with "No! No! They still come, but now, also with their bats!"

I remember this now, as the World Cup is upon us and the drama of Sri Lankan cricket on and off the field is building up. With the recent Australian tour, it increased and intertwined with the cricket itself, in such a way as to provide a nearly ready made scenario for a great Sri Lankan play. 

It only requires a dramatist responsive to the rich human interplay, fearless in making visible the historical and social material thick in the air or stored underneath the turf, and deft enough to merely glance the imaginatively zooming dramatic visualizations, the equivalent of oncoming cricket balls, to stage right, the theatre equivalent of cricket's "Leg", to stage left, the counterpart of cricket's "Off", and so on, utilizing the stage as the imagination takes you.

The contemporary era of successful Sri Lankan cricket has by sheer coincidence run alongside the country's recent troubled history. A retired Sri Lankan foreign Serviceman told me that in recent times the country's cricket team was an invaluable asset to them, in presenting an image of the country and had greater worth than most selections of any eleven ambassadors from his service. 

It was in this context that he deplored Ediriweera Sarachchandra's novel. "With a Begging Bowl" , in which a Sri Lankan Ambassador to Paris a former Buddhist monk, contemplates his role in that country on the day he arrives there, and in an abrupt illumination, sees that it is a continuation of his former role, "with a begging bowl". 

"He let down the whole side!" howled the retired foreign serviceman, as he waved his glass of Scotch around.

So, the new play I propose, about which I will shortly expand on in theatrical terms, will use slowed down stylized cricket action telling the dramatic story of Sri Lankan cricket against the background of its political history. To illustrate by example I take that famous day in Adelaide when eleven Ambassadors went to the edge of the field by Sri Lanka's New Lion. 

But this only as the spinal column of the new drama. It will be flashed around by the social and political history of Sri Lanka in the same period of its cricket ascendancy. Initially interested playwrights, now thinking of backing off? No, my friends and colleagues, this art form with human organism performing to other human organism in close proximity has to be dangerous to be worthwhile." 

"Current theatre is in decline because on the one hand it has lost any feeling for seriousness, and on the other hand for laughter. Because it has broken away from direct harmful effectiveness - in a word Danger".

These are the ever present words of the twentieth century's fiery prophet of the theatre, Antonin Artaud, words present in Sri Lanka, in the syllabus of the drama course of Kelaniya University. 

The new myth with its new Lion, is then performed in the spacious green arena, rooftop open, floodlit from four corners and thickly bounded by partisan spectators under a plethora of old Lions of the old myth now flattened on textile and depending on the wind for their animation. A dream of an assignment for a stage designer! 

And this one will not be mono culture bound unlike the Sarachchandra classic. 

For here there is a Tamil, perhaps better known in Commonwealth countries than even Prabhakaran (except in India), certainly more in the intense attentive focus of people (except perhaps amongst expatriate Tamils), than his counterpart in ethnic solitariness within the lesser known team, the Sri Lankan Cabinet. 

Add to that a large cast of white villains, clustered around the figure of umpire Emerson, an Anglo-Celt with a variety of dramatic stresses and strains.

The play itself will derive its structural magic from Bertolt Brecht's famous aphorism for his new theatre to replace the old one of realistic dialogue, psychology and emotion - the Epic theatre will be like a circus, with a plot." Acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians and pothe guras will be the vehicles for the new story telling in the theatre of Brecht. Vary this imaginatively, as " Cricket with a plot" (which seems to have actually happened) and instead of acrobats and dancers you have somersaulting fields- men, striking and running batsmen, fledgling cricketers, sledging ones, bowlers with pace, bowlers with spin, and a solitary bowler with an action, as fascinating as it is strange to the eyes of some white men (called umpires), close "at hand". 

You can almost hear this umpire muttering Othello's famous line (if he has heard of it) describing white men's reactions to his African actions in the days before he came to Europe and Venice, "It was strange, twas passing strange." 

Within the given dimensions of the Lumbini, the Lionel Wendt or the John de Silva, set a segment of this great action for the sightlines of the audience. Naturally, in our case the segment will be that stage sized area of the fields with Murali coming in from behind the wicket, the wicket stylized for the theatre, the controversial umpire stylistically exaggerated bending from waist, craning forward like an old-time detective of fiction searching for the tiniest clue across the length of a dark arm (I'm already imagining the late Upali Atthanayake in white mask, as umpire Emerson, in a production directed by Chandrasena Dassanayake) the non-striking white batsman (white masked Sri Lankan actor) positioning to run, or relaxing, alternatively. 

All areas beyond our strategically chosen segment, that is the rest of the field, is in the imagination of the audience. 

The audio effects from beyond - the crowd roaring, booing, singing Baila or sighing (on a near miss) will bring forth a great Sri Lanka sound designer. 

I think the entirety of the sequences of the cricket action within the stage segment I have described would be stylised in slow semi-dance motion. Once the audience has got accustomed to this convention of seeing cricket motions as theatre arts motions, then it becomes easy to connect up with the unseen areas of the field, in high dramatic moments, by using slowed down stylized motion to bring in the outfield to the centre. When the dramatic moment has passed, the outfield characters dance back of the seen stage area, out of the sightlines.

As I said earlier, it will be a semi-realistic drama. The stylized mode will be used for the immediate dramatic story of the famous day in Adelaide or any other to come in England soon, which will be the banding spine of dramatic attention. Running parallel track alongside will be the realistic drama which will be achieved by inter-cutting between realism and stylization using different areas of the stage. There will be two story tellers one on each side of the stage nearest the audience. 

One story teller will be none other than a cricket commentator like Tony Greig, but invested with the freedom of a flexible dramatic script. The other, telling the story of Sri Lanka in our times could be an editor of say, "The Lanka Guardian" or any other journal or even a batch of them from different political sides arguing with each other while telling the story. 

The stage action could begin, like in Hunuwataya Kathawa with an altercation during an ancient pol- gahanawa game. Then "Tony Greig" suddenly steps up and announces, reversing the time sequence of the "Caucasian Chalk Circle":

"In later times, in bloodier times,

There happened in a South Asian country ...."

And the contemporary action begins.

A title for the new play? Why not, "Hara Hara, Arohara! or Hora Hora, Hora Hora!" This is only in jest, the fitting title can be worked out when the play is being created.

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