Three solid performances that brought out meaninglessness of art and life

By Dylan Perera

I returned to the British Council auditorium, to watch a production of Art written by Yamin Reza produced by the Broken Leg Theatre Company with some trepidation. The last occasion that warranted the trip was a lecture involving the word gesamtkunstwerk. Afterwards there were black looks and bitter recriminations at my clumsy Soviet constructivist approach to family outings. I lay low for a while till it blew over.

In the days gone by the BC auditorium has seen great theatre. This writer has had the privilege of being the ‘3rd peasant standing from left’ in several of them. Iranganie Serasinghe’s bewitching soliloquies, Steve de la Zilwa’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Richard de Zoysa’s Merchant of Venice, all performed there, and must surely stand at the apogee of Sri Lanka English theatre. So it was with some regret I learnt that the auditorium with all its delicate acoustics is to be torn down to make way for a thoroughly modern British constructivist project – a tutory. Running for slightly over a hour without pause, Art is a longish short play lazy enough to dispense with a plotline. Serge, a mildly pretentious dermatologist makes a foray into art collection and buys a painting which contains nothing but a blank white canvas. His straight-talking friend Marc is aghast as the price tag of US$50,000. Their mutual friend Yvan, overwrought at the thought of his impending marriage, vacillates ineffectually between the two.

Compelling: Shanaka Amarasinghe as Yvan, A.S.H. Smyth as Marc and Jehan Mendis as Serge

The Painting, which causes a bitter division of opinion between the friends, is by and large a device Reza uses to peel away the layers of social hypocrisy as the friends confront the true and uncomfortable points that compose the nature of their relationships.

The title Art is a misnomer, eventually the play is less about art and more about friendship. It is about those static and shallow friendships of adulthood, circumscribed by vague boundaries of propriety and self-delusion. Though unnecessarily wordy and pretentious in its own right, the play is grounded in the modern dilemma of meaning. It harks back to the old idea of art - that it gives meaning to and enriches life – an idea variously played with by playwrights before like Pirandello or poets from Keats to Wallace Stevens.

Reza shows the deep disjunct between art and life. Both are equally sterile and pointless. Art does not give meaning or resonance to life. Art is just plain silly and archly self indulgent – Serge’s attempt to read significance and nuance into white canvas with white lines is first droll then pitiful. Art is mockery and one can hear the mockery of the entire art industry profiting by Serge’s gullible need for self validation.

If ‘art’ is cheap on meaning, life is too. The three friends to quote Thoreau, like the mass of men seem to ‘lead lives of quiet desperation’. The thinness of their lives is reflected in the thinness of their relationships and the relentless popping of calming pills and philosophic affectations. While Serge and Marc pontificate on the economic and aesthetic value of art, Yvan struggles with his stationery business, his fiancé and his mother. Despite the laughter we can’t help feeling these are small men leading small sad sorry pointless lives.

Jehan Mendis as Serge, A.S.H. Smyth as Marc and Shanaka Amarasinghe as Yvan gave crisp, well balanced performances winning the audience well with easy laughter and awkward grief. Without plot or incident to drive it forward ‘Art’ may not be the easiest of plays to stage. A play for voices it relies on sharp timing and slick delivery both of which were clearly evident as was the well thought out characterization.

The directorial approach was interesting. Democracy and collaboration are fine buzzwords in civil society but a little shaky in theatre. But one has to concede the actors in Art directed themselves competently. Amarasinghe gave what was probably his best performance as the neurotic insecure Yvan. Looking like a bouncer in a nightclub, sensitive is not a word that springs to mind when searching for a description of Amarasinghe. Nevertheless his handling of the rapid disintegration of the overwrought Yvan had soul. Jehan Mendis’s portrayal of Serge was urbane, smooth and vacuous as the painting he claims to obsess over. The careful unctuousness of Mendis proves a perfect foil for the tightly wound, suppressed vehemence of A.S.H. Smyth. Smyth’s rasping acerbic performance gave the production plenty of energy and much of the laughter.

But the flaws of actor directed are obvious ones. A cavalier disregard for the incidentals such as set design – in this case a few badly painted boxes, and fudged production values. The play is dislocated in time and space to no benefit. The costuming was baffling, Serge recalls a slightly over the top Sri Lankan socialite, Marc as a mid-rung European corporate executive and Yvan a redneck lumberjack. Still, on the relative scale of things and compared to what sometimes passes off as theatre nowadays, these are small and forgivable irritations for three solid, measured performances and excellent night of theatre.

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