Fourteen years ago, Hiran Abeysekera playing Alan Strang in that memorable 2007 production of Equus was discovered as a brilliant, uncanny, ‘sponge’ of an actor, and was flown to London on a scholarship to the highly prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. That Cinderella moment augured well. Over the years Hiran’s career has been so [...]


A midsummer night’s dream come true

Back home in Sri Lanka after COVID-19 brought the curtain down on going to West End with Life of Pi, Hiran Abeysekera reflects on his fairytale ascent in British theatre

A soaring moment: Playing Peter Pan at Regents Park in 2015

Fourteen years ago, Hiran Abeysekera playing Alan Strang in that memorable 2007 production of Equus was discovered as a brilliant, uncanny, ‘sponge’ of an actor, and was flown to London on a scholarship to the highly prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

That Cinderella moment augured well. Over the years Hiran’s career has been so meteoric it makes him one of Lanka’s greatest gifts to the British theatre- at 35 years of age a rare feat.

We meet Hiran, home for a spell, at Kotte in his father’s house, where in a back verandah we sit as a monsoon storm rages outside, flooding the garden.  It is dark and a lamp on the floor casts its glow on Hiran’s sculpted features. Out seem to dance, one by one, a spirited Peter Pan, a pansyish young Leonardo Da Vinci, and a Puck as magically dark as he is impish: roles Hiran has brought alive on stage and screen in the UK.

Hiran’s career began with Sinhala theatre, but the bilingual Romeo and Juliet presented by the British Council, Colombo, in 2007, was when his brilliance dazzled the local drama scene. From there to Equus and to the RADA was a whirlwind.

His graduation was followed by a string of dream roles.

A triumph: With the tiger in the stage version of the Life of Pi

Among his earlier credits, notable was the TV version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the BBC. As Puck he had to undergo two hours of makeup every day and horns to be part of a Shakespearean gala which, even though shot in a forest in Gloucestershire with the fairies and the magical mayhem, also featured (mild) lesbian scenes and iPads.

Nonetheless, he enjoyed it as much as he did Macbeth at Nalanda College, long ago when aged 15, he was ‘pale Hecate’ and the young boys regaled each other with the novel poetics of ‘double double toil and trouble’ down Borella streets.

With maturity he can now see that most of the bard’s passages had, at the time, flown over his head. “He’s a well that goes on and on” marvels Hiran, adding that he loves that game of interpreting the bard’s rich poetry.

As we chat, Hiran’s girlfriend Maia Jemmett plies us with cookies and plain tea, and plops on the ground by him to listen. Hiran met her last year, when playing under her grandfather,  the legendary Peter Brook, Britain’s greatest living theatre director.

At home in Kotte: Hiran and Maia. Pic by Akila Jayawardana

Amongst Hiran’s major roles since moving to London was Peter Pan (the ‘First Brown Peter Pan’ goes the joke) in 2015, a Regents Park Open Air Theatre production. The flying and soaring was done through a counterweight system, but the end connected to Hiran’s body was like a bungee rope. He had a truly heady time bouncing into the audience on and off and “swooping down to kiss Wendy, and all that”.

Those were intoxicating days, for a boy from the quiet suburbs of Colombo. The open air theatre allowed the actors to linger post-show time with bottles, and Hiran remembers how he, with other Lost Boys, used to “at 2 in the morning jump over the gates and lie on the grass, look at the stars and just talk about how cool life was…”

But the role that singed his profile into many a girl’s heart was in the popular Disney teen dramedy Find Me in Paris. He was Dash Khan, playing a 16-year-old Indian at 32, trying to keep up with the ‘young energy’ of the rest of the cast- all playing students in a ballet school in their late teens.

He had to learn ballet, but his window to the ballet world was not altogether savoury- there was something ‘brutal’ woven into its prima donna scramble which was different from the theatre world which he loves.

He also did Hamlet and Cymbeline with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the ultimate spotlight was certainly the stage version of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning tale of a boy shipwrecked with a tiger.

Horns and all:As Puck in TV version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It was his biggest role ever, as well as the most rapturously acclaimed. Played at the Sheffield Crucible, it was vocally challenging and exhausting (he was always drenched in sweat by the end) and once, when there was no time to unpack the puppetry and props, he had to memorize a whole page of a monologue over the lunch break to account for the zapping of one scene, which had flesh eating plants, a lake of acid and some friendly meerkats.

But it all paid off. On the first night itself, as the lights went out at the end, the audiences screamed and cheered the house down.

That proved to be Hiran’s ticket to the West End. And he would have performed there had not the pandemic struck.

The Life of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre, scheduled for June 2020, was nixed in March.

But the COVID-19 break proved a time for Hiran to find himself. He was locked down (in some style) at Sherborne, Dorset- in a 900-year-old manor house owned by his mentor Willi Richards. Also staying there was Maia, and it was bliss- being in love in the English countryside amidst the gardening, repairing fences, cutting hedges and helping with the lamb rearing.

The pandemic lull also gave him a chance to return to Sri Lanka. Thirteen years ago, his first time abroad, when he was in culture shock in London, the world must have seemed bewildering if fascinating- like being lost in the Milky Way- but now in Sri Lanka he confesses he feels like Eliza Doolittle come back to live in her father’s house at Covent Garden: he is not quite sure he feels he belongs.

He is not too pressed by identity issues however. He knows that everyone has their insecurities, and besides, while sometimes one feels one belongs nowhere, the next moment “you feel you fit in everywhere.”

Meanwhile he takes time off building a career to contemplate the drama academy he had always wanted to build in Sri Lanka- “to bridge the talent here and the opportunity abroad” as he told the Sunday Times in a 2008 interview.

Diverse roles: Hiran in The Prisoner, a play by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne

“The main studio would be there, a library here” he points to corners of the flooded garden, conjuring a blueprint on air.

It would be a place for training and nurturing but also camaraderie, which Hiran feels we have lost since the days when he was younger, playing ball at the Parliament Grounds when an impromptu picnic always meant the beginning of a new friendship. The academy would be a place to break divides and for artistes to play and chill out; because chilling out is how one gets to know fellow artistes over a coffee; “know what their drives are and make a connection- which matters a lot.”

Meanwhile, the world still remains his oyster, starting with that West End debut hopefully in November. As he and Maia lock eyes, one feels a surge of hope and excitement- not just for them but also for the new ground they promise to break here, and the rejuvenation it can bring.


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