They say it takes a dictatorship to make the country’s trains run on time. Pity this could not be said of certain plays on authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. But I quibble. The show may have got off to a late start (half an hour is a long time for dinner- and theatre-starved Sri Lankans to [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Pariahs in paradise

Wijith De Chickera was bitten by a stray-dog of a play at last weekend’s Colomboscope and had to swallow a bitter-pill drug that he found strangely pleasing for all its snap and bite

They say it takes a dictatorship to make the country’s trains run on time. Pity this could not be said of certain plays on authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. But I quibble. The show may have got off to a late start (half an hour is a long time for dinner- and theatre-starved Sri Lankans to stand in an orderly fashion in a queue, dears), but no one felt the time pass once the action began unravelling. There was an uneasy sense that bad things happen to those who are forced to wait.

The day

It was a hot, dark, and gloomy weekend. There was the mindfully perpetrated yet perhaps not-so-surprising assault on an outspoken sports-caster. He was set upon by thugs in full view of the public and uniformed guardians of the law, in the immediate aftermath of a contentious rugby match. And this was followed in quick order by the shocking killing of an apolitical senior journalist in her own home. Thus you can empathise with the black mood of a usually dyspeptic theatre critic not prone to take kindly to someone else barking orders. So when the grim-faced squirt of an usherette at the Rio Hotel, where Paraya was being performed on two very short nights, started pushing the audience around, the temperature – hot enough as it was on a sultry Colombo evening – began to rise dangerously. Sense prevailed, though, as it soon dawned on the dim-witted self that this was part of the play, a successful attempt to set (fire to) the atmosphere.

The play

Paraya is a play that resists being put in its place. Part political critique, part psychosocial exploration of the dark places of the human mind, it defies theatrical conventions (the ones we’re used to) and rejects good sense (we stood, or were moved around, for the duration of this demanding drama – all ninety minutes of it). Fifty percent power, fifty percent pity, it was a full hundred percent explosive performance. High octane theatre for the happily drugged masses.

Oh yes, that reminds me to mention the plot and themes. First, the plot. Well, don’t be disappointed: there wasn’t one. At least, not a discernible linear progression of events that began predictably at an identifiable beginning, went on nicely to the end, and ended with an appropriate climax. There was (sort of) a series of climactic moments in each of the events’ threads, but only if you were paying attention. The play was cyclical and circular, starting off in the centre and coming back to itself to repeat a complex nexus of connections.

Difficult to watch: A scene from the play. Pic by Yanik Tissera

Themes there were aplenty to please theatregoers, the politically aware and the culturally savvy, and just about every drugged citizen inoculated against dissent. Repression of freedom. Oppression of dissent. Suppression of truth. Need I add anything? You tell me. The (in turns) pleased, puzzled, and petrified audiences – if it is right to say ‘audience’ (for we were all in the play that smacked so disturbingly of reality) – got as much out of Paraya as they brought to it and were willing to put in, engage, wrestle with the arresting action.

The players

It was hard to discern star performers or even key players. I followed – at the invitation of the producers – three characters. In order, Prasad Pereira as a manipulative doctor who massages mindsets as much as molests his patients; Tracy Holsinger as the driven daughter of the absentee dictator’s ruthless ‘special envoy’; and Brandon Ingram as a chilling inquisitor whose modus operandi at torture and interrogation was unnervingly close to home. They were good – always on, always in character, often at the edge of some dark revelation about themselves and us, the onlookers, as if in a discomfiting mirror. And what little I caught of the rest of the ensemble at close quarters or in the overpowering middle distance made me realize and appreciate how much was riding on this being a team effort. That said, I shuddered most at recovering druggie Ruvin de Silva’s controlled breakdown.

The place

The ambience of the burnt-out ends of the old Rio Hotel made an appropriate locale for this perambulatory play. We were invited to ‘play’ on a set that the producers wanted us to make a playground of. Just mind the step, dears! Light was an issue for parts of the evening. I stumbled once. But no one fell. Only the players were thrown into the empty pool of the abandoned hotel. It felt raw, a stage for maniac uniformity-demanding mind-controllers to strut their stuff. (On a related note… It is high time for other avant-garde producers to consider moving out of the Wendt once in a way, experimenting with alternative venues: parks, promenades, perhaps the ‘pit’ at Peradeniya University as in days past?)

The pace

Gruelling to say the least. Great focus and stamina on the part of all the players. Good grief, the sheer physicality of the play had yours truly in a right royal sweat – and I was only shuffling uncertainly from one discomforting scene to the next uncomfortable stage. Or perhaps it was the fear of reprisals that brought the perspiration on? There was a very real sense that anything could happen – even to, or especially to, a participant cum member of the audience. (No announcements about switching mobiles off was needed; none dared ring to interrupt the grim, sobering, gut-wrenching proceedings).

The props

Neat attention to detail had been paid to each mini-‘stage’ where the diverse strands of Paraya were played out. The tone of the sets was grave, as is befitting life and near death under the rule of men and women bent on order, control, rigid conformity. Projecting on the pockmarked face of the dilapidated hotel’s crumbling facade a message of hope from a battered and bruised rebel was a nice touch of cinematic suspense. Good use was made of space, these being the nooks and crannies of an abandoned lot. There was a gritty reality to this mind-bending rendition of a thoughtful if asymmetric script.

The positives

A thoughtful if asymmetric script. A willingness to explore new modes of expression. A boldness in pushing the envelope in terms of what is acceptable for theatre. Compelling the audience to wear face masks and rain coats was a masterful touch. It made us hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable (true). It made us anonymous in a society screaming for identity (terrifying). It made us complicit in the brutalities, betrayals, and bloody-mindedness of the powers that be in our drama (tragic).

The pits

Next time (we’re hoping this will be done again, as often as time and space and energy permit), please start on time. And try and get the timing right as regards not combining it with any other entertainment on offer. Of course, this outing of Paraya was a part of Colomboscope, a smorgasbord (our capital’s version of it) of the visual and performing arts. There is great merit in offering this as a standalone. Because players and participants go away equally drained (“Move on there! Stop milling around mindlessly! Don’t block the entrances!”). It works best as a separate piece of promenade theatre.

The point

I’ve penned this response to a truly thought-provoking performance in a manner to suggest some of the jolting and disjointed sequences of the play. Paraya made us all think, while challenging us to consider the society we live in and often take for granted because it is uncomfortable to question the status quo. Difficult to watch and dangerous to think about, this was – and is – and will be – a dark take on mind control that demands our attention, our engagement, our response. (I saw it last weekend. I’m reliving its trills and sharps and discords up to today.)

The denouement

Exciting. Explicit. Excellent. Enjoyed every minute of the egregious madness. Expect adverse reactions from those in favour of mind control when it dawns on them that satire provokes sane people to essay unexpected responses. A National Happiness Authority and the soporific of Upekka – a drug-induced equanimity, centrally administered and ruthlessly enforced – is not a million miles from the state of the nation in certain states of mind… which shall remain nameless for the nonce in the spirit of Paraya.

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