Keeping tradition alive with imaginative interpretation
A celebratory performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by the Kandy Players. Directed by Ashley Halpe .
Supported by The British Council and the Alumni Association of the University of Peradeniya (Colombo Branch).
Reviewed by Tissa Jayatilaka
In celebration of the birth centenary of Prof. E.F.C. (Lyn) Ludowyk (1906-2006), the Kandy Players recently performed Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The play was directed by Prof. Ashley Halpe, one of Ludowyk's successors to the Chair in English at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and himself a former student of the late revered professor. It went on the boards at Peradeniya on the 15th of November, Kandy on the 29th and 30th of October and at the warm and cosy `Namel and Manel Weeramuni Punchi Theatre' in Borella on the 4th and 5th of November.
We are aware that there are two plots in Shakepeare's Twelfth Night, although they are both closely intertwined. The main plot is that in which Duke Orsino tries to gain the hand of the Countess Olivia, and where the shipwrecked group sort themselves out. The exploitation of the monied and witless Sir Andrew Aguecheek by Olivia's uncle, the engagingly boisterous drunkard Sir Toby Belch, is the kernel of the sub-plot. Sir Toby is able to make Aguecheek believe that Olivia may be interested in getting married to him.
Director Ashley Halpe has judiciously edited the text and condensed the play without harming its original plot, characters or tempo. He has also attempted to localise the play by using modern Sri Lankan dress and making a few other deft changes. Thus Orsino, the Duke of Illyria becomes the Governor of a province; Countess Olivia, a rich aristocratic woman; Valentine, one of the two original `gentlemen attending on the Duke', is Orsino's personal assistant while Curio is left out; Malvolio, Olivia's steward is here transformed into the manager of Olivia's estate and household though with his puritanism very much intact; Maria the waiting woman is a lady of Olivia's household and the two sea captains (friends of Sebastian and Viola) have become more specifically a trawler captain and a fishing boat captain, costumed as prosperous Fish Mudalalis.
A major challenge before a good actor of Shakespearean drama is to be able to combine two different things. He must bring out the stylistic qualities of the poetry, and he must also be able to give powerful theatrical expression to the emotions and actions recorded in the poetry. And this is not by any means an easy challenge for young and inexperienced performers to meet.
The marvellous performances of Viola (Nisansala Jayaweera) and Feste (Namali Premawardhana) were a treat to the eye and ear and the inner being. Referring to Twelfth Night, someone has observed that the moral of the tale is `never to send a boy to do a man's job, especially if he is a girl.' This young lady, Nisansala Jayaweera, convinced us that such a seemingly impossible mission could well be accomplished, by playing the role of Viola to near-perfection. Her diction, body language and stage demeanour were impeccable. Namali Premawardhana's `viridukaraya-Feste' was memorable both for her `mellifluous voice' and easy-going manner. Feste is introduced to us in the play as `a witty commentator' who cares for money, is a good judge of natures and one who carefully adjusts herself to the company she is in. Namali Premawardhana had taken all these attributes on board in her superb dramatisation of Feste. It is most fitting, therefore, that she should have the last word (or should I say the last note?) in the play. Sir Toby Belch (Neil Halpe) tended to rely a little too much on the prompt for his lines and this served to detract from his otherwise fine performance. The assurance and experience of a seasoned campaigner (he has acted in certain `Dramsoc' productions before), however, were in evidence and he contributed tangibly to the drunken revelry and the tomfoolery which are a significant part of the play. Sir Toby is either soused or nearly soused throughout the play, is a liar and a cheat, yet a likable character. Neil Halpe was able to bring out this aspect of Sir Toby's personality quite effectively.
One of the most comic (cruelly-comic?) scenes in Twelfth Night, the gulling of Malvolio, was very well done. Malvolio, Sir Toby's `niggardly, rascally, sheep biter,' is fooled `black and blue' in Olivia's garden. The intention is not so much to harm Malvolio as to tick him off for his general lack of sympathy and particularly for his puritanical arrogance towards Maria, the drunken and disorderly knights Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, Fabian and Feste. One felt that the Kandy Players got this `box-tree' scene just right. Malvolio who stands at the centre of the key characters in the sub-plot is a complex character. Personal vanity and an austere puritanism are his hallmarks. He is well spoken and a man of education who tends to take himself more seriously than he should. In the company of the ribald and easy going group who figure in the sub-plot, he thus asks for harassment. And harassed quite mercilessly he is! Yasal Ruhunage did justice to this yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered hapless creature. The young Shavera Seneviratne as Maria the prankster, `as witty a piece of Eve's flesh as any in Illyria,' will doubtless benefit immensely from this her early experience in a major production. She seemed quite at home in the company of Sir Toby and the gang. Simon Cotton did well as Sir Toby's butt in the role of the ignorant, witless and cowardly Aguecheek.
A great deal rides on the shoulders of Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Mourning the deaths of her father and brother, Olivia intends to go veiled for seven years. She had abjured the company of men and allows herself to be oppressed by melancholy. The power of feeling that induces such resolve and the strength of character which trusts itself to carry it out, influence her whole personality. Although she is not sturdy enough to give short shrift to her dissolute kinsman who takes advantage of her house, she succeeds in stage managing some order through her puritanical steward. Yet she is able to turn her back on Orsino's suit with an icy coldness of character. Feste's `mouse of virtue' is thus a many-faceted creature. Together with Orsino, who seem to be more in love with the state of love than with a lady, Olivia must project that idealisation of love which lies at the heart of Twelfth Night as much as that of As You Like It. Shakespeare is believed, by some commentators, to have never surpassed the scenes between Viola and Orsino or Viola and Olivia. Barana Waidyatilaka and Ayanthi Matarage perhaps found the theatrical burden of portraying these two characters too heavy to bear. The former neither looked nor acted the part of Orsino, being way too wooden while the latter was not able to give theatrical life to the complexity of Olivia who stands at the central point of the whole action. The experience gained, however, should stand these two youngsters in good stead in their future forays into stage performance.
Music - instrumental music and the music of verse - is a crucial part of Twelfth Night. The play opens to the sound of music, and music remains an integral part of it right through until the play is done. The music for the Kandy Players' Twelfth Night has been composed and directed by Bridget Halpe who is also the Assistant Director of the play. The overture is in a popular and lively style. This music recurs in `O Mistress Mine' sung by Feste in the famous scene of the revels of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in which Feste himself becomes a reveller. In the original Twelfth Night, "Come away, come away, death" (II.iv) is sung by the clown to the Duke, and Shakespeare has written his own introduction to the lyric by assigning to Orsino the lines which precede it, in which the audience is told that the song is `old and plain', popular in the countryside, where it is recited by `The spinsters and the knitters in the sun', and that it is a `silly' song, which `dallies with the innocence of love.' In the production of The Kandy Players the music is quaint and melancholy. `I am gone, sir' (at the close of Act IV.ii) is sung by Feste as a parting jibe at the imprisoned Malvolio, and its contents enter directly into the action of the episode. In keeping with the dramatic action here, Bridget Halpe has made Feste sing in a rather weird manner disregarding tonality. `When that I was and a little tiny boy' (V.i) brings the play to a close and the `message' it conveys to us is to look on the brighter side of life and `keep your spirits up' no matter what life may dish out to you. The song thus is a mixture of the sombre (`For the rain it raineth every day') and the playful and the music reflects this duality. Accordingly Feste here begins in a hopeful, vigorous mood, but brings in a philosophical quality at the end to match the words of the final stanza. Haasinee Andree (violin), Anoop Kapukotuwa and Dharini Udugama (guitars) gave a polished account of themselves in the process of giving musical voice to Bridget Halpe's compositions. Special mention must again be made of the exceptional singing of the `Fool', Namali Premawardhana. She held the audience spellbound with her fabulous voice and extremely good acting.
What, then, of the overall impact of the production? To its great credit this presentation by the Kandy Players was not way out as some recent local productions of Shakespearean drama have been. In some of the latter, enthusiastic directors without a sound basis in scholarship have tended to indulge their theatrical egotism in the name of `interpretation'. His extensive knowledge of Shakespeare scholarship and experience of dramatic production over the years are made good use of by Ashley Halpe. This is an imaginative interpretation of Twelfth Night with an emphasis on setting, lighting and costume. The use of her sari pota by Olivia instead of a veil to conceal her face in Act I. scene v during her first meeting with Viola disguised as Cesario and the bareness of the stage throughout the play are but two examples of this approach. Given that a significant number of the Kandy Players are schoolboys and schoolgirls on the threshold of their acting careers, I would say that Ashley Halpe's latest production is a brave and commendable attempt to keep alive the tradition of serious drama in Sri Lanka.
This production is also an act of homage to a literary and academic giant - Prof. Lyn Ludowyk. Both Bridget and Ashley Halpe are direct beneficiaries of the legendary English professor and the director of the University of Ceylon Dramatic Society (Dramsoc) which gave Sri Lankan audiences experiences of contemporary western drama from 1934-1956. Ashley Halpe has paid back handsomely his debt of gratitude to both his former teacher and to his alma mater. In a few weeks, he will mark fifty significant years of giving as a university teacher of literature during which time he has done his utmost to educate many an undergraduate while keeping the Dramsoc alive and active. Lyn Ludowyk in Elysium must be pleased to note that his labours on behalf of teaching English Literature and on creating an audience for western drama in Sri Lanka have been sustained by some of his products.