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3rd October 1999

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Lots of body padded with lots of soul

Scintillating comedy at its best. That's what 'Habeas Corpus' was. It was full - bodied, literally so, because the hilarious, leit-motif of the play to which diners at the 'Lanka Oberoi' were entertained on Monday night September 27, and again on Tuesday September 28 revolved around how the Wicksteed family coped with their sexuality, the conflicting demands of the pure (or as Dr. Wicksteed puts it the putrid) physicality of their bodies with the conventionally romantic notions of love and family propriety.

The clinically proper Dr. Wicksteed's demented, hypochondriac son, his sickly, emaciated daughter with hardly any visible signs of frontage and his buxom wife who is spurred to menopausal arousal when her old lover - also a medic - comes around, are all destined to find themselves through their subliminal urges metamorphosed into zany romances.

Sri Lankans generally being a prissy lot, I noticed they took a little time to warm to the play. Was it the five -course Oberoi dinner? Or too much wine and too little song? I did not have to wonder long because even as the plot unfolded and the jokes came in thick and fast, breaking out of and into song of the musical variety theatre style, the laughter from the audience coming out at first in ripples soon turned full-blown.

The Alan Bennet comedy 'Habeas Corpus' has been described as a play in the farcical tradition but yet different from other farces because the playwright, one of the finest of his generation, manages to combine "Hurtling action with verbal brilliance" as The Guardian critic observed. This is made very clear with the entry of Mrs. Swabb, the cleaning woman with her omnipresent feather duster, who is both player and all -seeing chorus. A fine role played by Sue Pollard with much experience in London theatre roles. In fact all the actors and actresses who made their appearance in this superbly vibrant play were those with brilliant credits as theatrical, television and film personalities in London.

To get back to the play, Dr. Wicksteed is on stage, musing at 53 in his clinic at the sordidness of the human condition and its evanescence. But he is a dedicated doctor and all so clinical in his dealings with his patients. However the entry of Felicity changes it all. His views take on a sea change as he becomes irresistibly enamoured by her sheer physicality. So does his son. The daughter for whom the cleaning maid thoughtfully orders a pair of artificial breasts is soon transformed beyond recognition. A comedy of errors soon comes on laid out for resolution with infidelities, the proprieties of medical ethics and questions of permissiveness in sexual and romantic relationships taken account of. There is in all this plenty of scope for wit which is scattered throughout the two acts of the play.

I said the play was full - bodied and would add to that to say it was much body and a lot of soul too as it tilts along and titilates veering from the physical to the philosophical. I have no doubt everybody enjoyed the play from doctors firstly, both the frisky and the high - minded, the young in their prime to the senile with their wits still about them. A play both earthy and heavenly. Congratulations to the British Playhouse Group who gave Sri Lankan theatre lovers a chance to enjoy a bit of excellent fare which otherwise only London theatre goers would have had the good fortune to do.

Jarring notes, coughs and yawns amidst blossoming sounds

Review of the concert by the
Ensemble Oriol.
By Lalanath de Silva.

The Ensemble Oriol Berlin was introduced to the audience as one among the best chamber orchestras of Europe. While this may be true, their performance in Colombo did not always fit that description.

The Bach Violin Concerto, with the leader as soloist, started with a beautiful ensemble sound, well-paced and evoking good style. The florid ornamentation, which Bach took pains to actually write out, was executed with such ease that it actually felt like improvisation. But intonation problems between the soloist and the 1st violin in the first movement and with the lower strings in the second movement took away from what might otherwise have been an excellent performance. The leader had problems keeping his E string in tune, perhaps due to the eternally changing humidity in this tropical isle. Slacking precision kept the work from somehow blossoming out.

Then came an "experiment" which failed as soon as it began. Perhaps due to budget cuts at the Goethe Institute (German Cultural Institute) that sponsored the concert, the concert was "combined" with a workshop module. Prof. Dr. Martin Zenck took over the stage and delivered a lecture on the classical and romantic periods of music - the ensemble illustrated his talk with excerpts from the Mozart Adagio & Fugue. Members of the audience were seen becoming uneasy - some coughed - others yawned - and worst of all, several started talking to each other. Although what he had to say was interesting, it did not fit a concert module.

I would be the first to support workshops over concerts. For several years I have advocated the need for visiting musicians to spend time with local musicians imparting knowledge and making exchanges of ideas. It is this interaction that helps to impart lasting cultural impressions on both sides. Concerts have their role - but their impact is very limited - confined to the city - and certainly has more gain for the visitor than for the local musician. But fusing a concert and a workshop was a disaster. I sometimes felt like asking a question, "Are you reading too much into Mozart's music?" At a concert, unlike in a workshop, the listener cannot exchange ideas with the presenter. The lecture was too long. At the end someone remarked, "He seems to know something we don't!"

I would suggest that visiting groups do a concert and a workshop separately. This means more funding for the programme or less destinations on a tour - the problem is Sri Lanka will lose out to India and Pakistan, which are more prestigious destinations.

The Mozart Adagio & Fugue certainly had potential to become a satisfying performance. The Ensemble seemed able to grapple with the inner tensions of the piece - but Prof. Zenck had by then destroyed the "audience-artiste" relationship and the ambiance was gone.

The two works that transformed the evening were the Mahler song cycle and the Mendelssohn Octet. Katja Boost (Mezzo - Soprano) who was the soloist in the Mahler has a wonderful stage personality. The emotional range and depth of her voice allowed her to deliver the range of emotions in the cycle. The arrangement of the orchestration for small ensemble by Andreas N. Tarkmann was remarkable. It lost nothing of the impact of Mahler's fuller orchestration. The Horn, Bassoon and Clarinet (the only winds that performed in the evening) were scored for with such great knowledge of timbre and range, the Bassoon was sometimes a second Horn and sometimes a second Clarinet and sometimes an Oboe. The Horn player, Sarah Willis excelled herself playing stopped notes and florid passages with such perfect execution. I wanted to hear more of them. The song cycle lifted the evening to another plane, despite Prof. Zenck's attempts to lecture on it before- hand. Nothing could keep this Mahler down from reaching into my heart.

The final work, the Octet was a sheer display of virtuostic ensemble work. There was a jarring wrong note at the end of the exposition in the first movement by the leader (obviously carried away by the intensity of the music!) and some intonation problems on his E string. But these did not really detract from the magnificent performance by eight string players. What tone! What tight ensemble response - the melodic phrases tossed around - with the same mastery that I have seen among the virtuoso tabla, ghattam and mirdangam players of Sri Lanka and India. The work rose out of the score and became a living dancer. The phrases sang and interaction between the players made the work blossom and bloom.

Such a pity that the audience applauded between movements - mostly out of ignorance - it was disturbing the performers in their concentration. The Hilton is no place for concerts - acoustically questionable - and artistically removed from the cultural centres of the city. The audience it attracts is starved of true music lovers. I hope that this can change.

But that notwithstanding - thank you for the music.

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