By Smriti Daniel As evening falls over Colombo, Kusal is looking at himself in the mirror. His expression suggests his thoughts are tortured, but I have no idea what they are. Perhaps if I didn’t know the man standing next to me was privy to them, I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out. But [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Words, silence, instruments: Into the inner life


By Smriti Daniel
As evening falls over Colombo, Kusal is looking at himself in the mirror. His expression suggests his thoughts are tortured, but I have no idea what they are. Perhaps if I didn’t know the man standing next to me was privy to them, I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out. But I can actually hear Kusal’s tinny thoughts spill out of my neighbour’s earphones, even if I cannot quite make out the words.

Talented cast: Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Subha Wijesiriwardene, Thanuja Jayawardene and Tehani Chitty

Standing in the living room later, the actor Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke who plays Kusal, could also hear that thin voice emanating from the smartphone of the audience member closest to him. And his wife, Tania, played by Thanuja Jayawardene that night, could literally hear herself fantasising about breaking her wineglass and slashing Kusal’s throat with it. It’s all very surreal and meta, particularly because the actors had taken care not to listen to each other’s internal monologues in advance, and so were hearing some amusing if disconcerting things mid-production.

Keeping his cast in the dark was intentional, says Welandawe-Prematilleke, who also directed and wrote Close to the Bone. Staged as part of Colomboscope 2016, the play was a collaboration between him and sound artist Isuru Kumarasinghe. A piece of immersive theatre, it brought some 40 people crowding into the rooms of the Presidential Suite at Cinnamon Lakeside. The audience, who stayed on the move, was advised to choose one of four characters to trail for the duration of one run-through – but the play only looped twice.

“Part of this show is understanding that there are things that are unknown, that we never have every perspective and that our perspective is always limited,” Welandawe-Prematilleke tells the Sunday Times, explaining that the concept has been germinating in his mind for years now, but that it took pairing up with Kumarasinghe to see it realised.

This is not the first play Kumarasinghe has worked on, but it is certainly unique in his experience. “When Arun first approached me, I immediately fell in love with the idea of hearing the inner thoughts of a character,” says the sound artist, explaining that he wasn’t interested, however, in using the voice-over as a running commentary.

Instead, Kumarasinghe chose four musicians who he then paired with the actors. Intent on conveying mood and emotion, they chose a palette of sounds for each internal monologue. (For Tehani Chitty, who had one of the barest and most interesting tracks, the ‘music’ proved to be a distracted hum.) What evolved out of these conversations were genuinely inventive audiopieces that relied on a blend of dialogue, instruments and silences to convey the rich texture of a person’s inner life. In total, the team working on the two scripts, voiced and unvoiced, ended up numbering some 13 people.

But in the end, the mechanics themselves were relatively simple: upon entering the Presidential Suite of the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel, audience members were asked to log onto a designated website via Wi-Fi that then allowed them to choose an actor to follow. Actors moved about rooms in a choreographed dance that allowed them to stage the odd tableau as well as have moments of (usually tortured) solitude. Unknown to us, every room had been miked. Just behind a partition the musicians were at work, compiling the whole thing in real time, responding to what they heard as actors moved about adjoining rooms. Kumarasinghe, who was a kind of conductor-at-large, now boasts a bandaged toe from the night a partition wall fell on him.

But more care, and perhaps more time, was needed to turn a very promising concept into a working play. The production was dogged by technical issues. Despite a very responsive team working to help individual audience members, many of us never heard more than snatches of dialogue through our earphones. The plot, which may not have been such an issue if the play wasn’t anchored in a mystery, proved indecipherable. The rooms were overflowing, and for both cast and audience, getting where you needed to be involved wading through the crowd.

Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke are frankly disappointed that they couldn’t iron out some of these issues. Welandawe-Prematilleke has been fielding questions about his plot as well, and insists that “Of all the theories people will give you, there is an actual truth of what happens, and that is laid out in the show but it is laid out quite subtly.”There are plans to re-stage Close to the Bone and to offer tickets that allow one to watch the play on multiple nights, encouraging audiences to engage more fully. The script could use more development, but as it stands, has its moments.

Though Welandawe-Prematilleke’s theatrical milieu has frequently been the politically well-connected, upper-classes of Colombo, a recurring motif of his work so far has been his critique of entitlement and callousness. He is interested in the angst and insecurity that can leave these seemingly privileged lives riddled with despair. With Close to the Bone he attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reflect on the larger world outside. “I never want to make work about fabulously wealthy people feeling depressed about their fantasy life,” he says dismissively.

He is not a traditional playwright. Much of the time, his scripts are the result of many conversations with his cast, and in Close to the Bone he was lucky to be working with Thanuja Jayawardene, Subha Wijesiriwardene and Tehani Chitty, a trio of gifted actresses, two of whom he has known for over a decade.With his being the only male character, they called him out every time he risked playing to stereotypes of hysterical women, he says grinning. At one point, he describes with evident pleasure the potency in a scene where his character turns around to find their accusing eyes on him, and just beyond an entire hallway of people crowding around, hanging on his every word.

That sense of immediacy and agency, the possibility of creating unique experiences for audience and actors alike, is what feeds Welandawe-Prematilleke’s forays into immersive theatre. Kumarasinghe agrees, explaining that this approach has allowed him to explore a new kind of energy, more in keeping with his interest in experimental music. “This is for me all new ground. I had to rethink my work, rethink my practice,” says Kumarasinghe. “I had to really figure out – how do we do this? I have loved exploring and experimenting with sound. It drove me.”

The two agree that it can be a very playful, fun process – akin to exploring the dioramas Welandawe-Prematilleke loved as a child. “For me the engagement of immersive theatre is just so much more exciting,” says the director. “With a traditional performance, you can go, shut off for an hour and a half, and then get up and talk about where you are going to go for dinner.” But for a production like Close to the Bone, conversation, critical or otherwise, is embedded in the process.

“That people do have to talk about a play after, is what I love – they can’t rely on what a friend or a reviewer said about it, because they are not even seeing the same show. They make their own experience, which I find really thrilling,” says Welandawe-Prematilleke.

The cast of Close to the Bone: Tania – Thanuja Jayawardene paired with musician Uvindu Perera, Yasodha – Subha Wijesiriwardene paired with Sarani Perera, Sanchia – Tehani Chitty paired with Sachi Gamage and Kusal – ArunWelandawe-Prematilleke paired with Yohan Jayasooriya. Website Design: Lee Bazalgette at Colombo Design Studio.

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