I have never seen a Shakespeare drama held so much in thrall and thrust as Jehan Aloysius’ Pyramus and Thisby, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, rompingly mounted at the Punchi Theatre in a four day run. By thrall and thrust I mean the excitement it generated by the quality creation it offered to an audience which sat through the entire performance enthralled by the marvellous collage of all kinds of audio visuals assembled together, not to mention the rollicking fun and hilarity the play let go. Presented in the style of local folk theatre tradition and ritual, it was a refreshingly novel piece of theatre - cross- cultural, cross-media, cross-linguistic, cross-stylistic.
I am glad that at least there are a few directors in Sri Lanka who are capable of leaving behind the archaic notion that Shakespearean drama and lyrical verse is incapable of fitting into the Sri Lankan folk theatre tradition of Kolam, Thovil, Nadagam and Mask. Let this be a challenge to the newly emerging directors.
Equally with its innovative form, ‘Pyramus and Thisby’ evokes a special interest by the nature of its preoccupations, some of which have dark overtones in spite of the overall comic mode of the play. Though the plot of ‘A Midsummer Night Dream’ revolves around four pairs of lovers, Aloysius performance is created from the two sub-plots of the ‘mechanicals’ and the fairies supernatural world of Saturnalia and carnival. In the Titania -Oberon story, however, Aloysius postulates a world of male chauvinism in which brutal physical strength, magic, trickery and manipulation are used to assert masculine authority, as highlighted in the sequences portraying Oberon and Titania’s tug o’ war over the mystical Indian boy, visually impacted on the audience all the more powerfully because of the minuteness of Titania dwarfed by an Oberon who appears giant-like in comparison; and the vicious grapple between Peaseblossom and Puck beautifully choreographed by a potently erotic dance sequence. But the women in the play hold their own!
So much for sexual politics. But oh the “mechanicals”!! They deserve the highest plaudits and it is here that Aloysius manifests his creative exuberance without pause.
Rarely have we seen body movement, physical action and bouncing acrobatics used so exuberantly, where words, Shakespearean or Sinhala, ring out with such vivacity and vigour and with such meaningful comic life. It was indeed physical theatre and fusion dance.
As the title suggests the main focus of the play is a group of rustic artisans, Bottom, Peter Quince Flute, Snout, Snug and Starveling who rehearse a play titled ‘Pyramus and Thisby', in the forest, to be enacted for the newly wedded legendary king and queen, Theseus and Hippolyta who are omitted in Aloysius’ play. It was indeed a fine touch to exclude the pressures and constraints of aristocratic patronage. The war of the fairies over the Indian boy and Puck’s mischievous machinations affect the human world and Bottom becomes the unwitting victim of a magical metamorphosis and finds himself entwined with the enchanted Titania in a charmingly innocent embrace while he is still fast sleep. All this was beautifully ‘cameoed’ alongside the fairy dance. Any orgiastic reading of these scenes was dismissed in Aloysius’ interpretation laced with roisterous jollity and fun, and Bottom’s comically innocent incomprehension of Titania’s romantic overtures met with extremely funny, “.... maha walganiyekne, me genita pissu' it is no wonder that the audience took several minutes to subdue its hilarious outburst of laughter.
The star focus of individual parts was Bottom played by the director himself, but there was a great deal of balancing and blending of dominating roles and supporting roles so that the production did not mount around one single role. Anuk De Silva, portraying Quince, charmed us with his superb comic flair and witty engagement with the audience and almost stole the thunder from Bottom. But who would have thought that such hilarity -and life could be pinched into the role of Snout like the centre stage player did? The only drawback was Titania, who could neither live to the passion and power of the other roles nor the passion and power demanded from her role, and although Aloysius managed to avoid any hindrance to the play by some intelligent mounting aimed at highlighting her dancing skills, he failed to ignite and actuate Titania’s character as the powerful Fairy Queen who could only be won over by magic and trickery. If the director’s objective was to highlight Titania in the Titania-Oberon subplot, her performance fell short of this expectation. But it was a treat to watch the fairies, their movements beautifully choreographed, their whole person and body engaged in synchronized interplay. All credit to the cast for the imaginative effort made to, enlarge, vary and redistribute the limited stage space of the Punchi Theatre.
This bilingual production presented in the style of the local folk theatre tradition and ritual has been able to transcend the cultural and linguistic barriers that restrict Shakespeare to the English educated and the elite. I also liked the way the actors went into the midst of the audience, interacted with the spectators and drew them into the play. The real worth of Aloysius’ play emerges here - making Shakespeare accessible to all. If you go by this criterion, Shakespeare would be a stayer in Sri Lanka.
Some final words about the stage sets and costuming - the set had been designed and crafted with skilful economy, one huge tree dominating the stage. The costumes designed by the director himself looked very right, very rich. To cap it all the production was backed by clever lighting, and a fine musical score very economically used. The play altogether yielded a fabulous display of stage craft and innovative theatre.
Shakespeare should live within this hour to see his great romantic comedy emerge into view with laudable triumph.