mind adventures

an experimental theatre company set up in sri lanka in 1999.

Words from Sunila Galappatti on (Un)Making Time

Sunila Galappatti has worked in the theatre (in the UK) as a dramaturg and as a director. In Sri Lanka, she has been the  Director of the Galle Literary Festivals 2009 and 2010. She wrote this about the two plays performed as a part of (Un)Making Time – Rondo and My Other History.

This is not a review.  This is an answer to the ‘what did you think?’ question I’ve been asked a lot about the plays that were on last weekend in Colombo.  I am a little nervous that people seek me out to ask me not because my first career was in the theatre but because I am sure to have an opinion.  Despite some years of practising, this time I’ve struggled to put my thoughts into a single sentence that can be deployed to satisfy fellow members of the audience or the performers and directors themselves.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen both plays.  Let me explain:

RONDO

What I liked principally about Rondo was its ambition.  Here was a company taking a risk, rather than simply doing what they already knew they could do.  I believe – largely on the basis of A Travelling Circus –  that this is also a company that is capable of subtle, meaningful and rigorous theatre making.  I think they may ultimately have got there with Rondo but that the process of devising may have been unfinished at the time of performance?

I like this sort of devised theatre piece – many do not – and the stylistic feature that marked this one out was that each character acted and spoke in his or her own particular style (not an easy thing to pull off).  This device communicated what was to me the most powerful thing about the play – an attempt to show the how our reality is shaped by what we have had to live with.  Each person in this town has found a way to live with what has taken place there and is clinging hard to a normality that seems very strange to us.  The Visitor – our representative on stage – asks ‘Why are these people like this?  Someone else who had seen the play put it much better – she said what she liked about the play was that it made you constantly ask questions:  why are these people like this, what was it that took place here, how are we possibly going to find out without disturbing a fragile peace?

So, you see where we’re going – this is a play that tries to get at the structural difficulties of recociliation – I absolutely applaud it for that.  All the same it was not as well executed as I’d expect from this company.  The performances were largely overplayed – even by good actors – the language had not been rigorously stripped of cliché and contrivance, the sound was late on almost every cue and the lighting didn’t do its job (but I understand there was major technical failure the night I saw the show).  I can’t help feeling that all of this was because the show itself had not come to maturity.  There was something defensive about the playing of it – as though the actors wanted to show us they were doing something remarkable and different rather than confidently inhabiting the reality of the play.  Although the play was full of funny lines it seemed to take itself too seriously as a whole.  It lacked the robust sense of humour that was striking in A Travelling Circus.

And so there was an air of pretension to the show that did an unfortunate disservice to the good work the company had clearly done in devising it.  Some basics were lost in the effort – like pace and audibility – and most importantly the show couldn’t grow to fill the theatre (I don’t mean the seats, I mean the space itself).  There is a frightening moment that comes for directors when you move a show from a rehearsal room into the theatre space and it either grows or shrinks in significance.  This one shrank, unfortunately.  It isn’t always something you can anticipate – I saw Rondo once in rehearsal and I didn’t anticipate the shrink either.

It is also a tall order really to set a play in a non specific place and play it in a specific one.  I’d never criticise a company for making this choice but I think Mind Adventures made the harder one and the one that requires more rigour and honesty and depth of thinking than many people can do in a few months.

MY OTHER HISTORY

I liked this play.  It was just the sort of show I would usually dislike – naturalistic playing of an overstated script – but it was right for this material and this moment.

This style often seems the lazier, not exploiting what art can do to heighten reality but rather offering up a pale imitation of the real thing.  But in this instance I think it was the braver thing to do: to set out to imagine in real detail the conflicts today facing a family who had been displaced to Colombo from Jaffna during the 90s, after losing their home, their peace and so many of our (their) people.  A company of people who had shared but not directly experienced this history (to my knowledge) might instead have feared themselves inadequate to this task and couched it in abstraction or stylistic flourishes.  While I assume there was research done around this play I also value what was imagined.  The risk of imagination is after all another part of art.  Here was also a willingness to look a thing in the face and acknowledge it – something we are not always willing to do, whether as institutions or individuals.

The play is episodic (nicely mimicked by the configuration of the set) and perhaps tentative.  It may seem more description than drama.  Its two major conflicts lie around the questions of whether the young man of this family should leave Sri Lanka for the sake of a more secure future and whether he should return home to Jaffna to see the remains of a home he can’t remember.  Internalised conflicts – hard to write, harder to play – but powerful ones.  The father of the family reminds his wife that she used to talk about how they could go back to normal ‘when this is all over’ – he barely needs to hold the irony up to us but in fact I am glad that he does.  I cried at this and at many other moments in the play – in my case with a collective rather than a personal grief – not because the art was profound but because it was trying to speak to something profound.

I am not trying to write a comprehensive account of this play or of its strengths and weaknesses.  I just wanted to mention these:  I liked the moments of heightened reality in the play – the mother’s scream into the dishcloth, the father’s smashing of the flowerpots, the son’s funeral rites for his grandfather, the daughter’s return to her family sofa – that are immediately disappeared by the day to day of the play.  This is a trick unlikely to work but it does.  I think the writing of this play is poor – overwritten, awkward (or rather not awkward enough, not like people speak) – and full of exposition.  The conversation between mother and son in the bedroom is almost comical – each one is really addressing us the audience rather than someone else who was also there.

So what?  This play probably would not stand up to an audience that had lived its experiences (the cultural stereotyping and geographical vagueness might also then come a cropper) but it would be a start for anyone that has not really known or stopped to think about the realities lived by families just like theirs.  If there is one person in any audience of whom this is true, it would be worth playing to them.  Lets translate this play and tour it in the south and find out.  In this instance I’m prepared to judge the art by its use – or really by its willingness to engage with a time and place, here and now.  My favourite moment in the play was when the mother and son return from Jaffna.  The father, who refused to go, is standing expectantly, even eagerly, to hear what they say.  The question in his face and their silence, full as they are of emotion, felt like an instance in which the play showed more than it told.

There are two things that I found disappointing about My Other History.  The first was its sudden and simplistic ending.  The other was the way it addressed the issue of being censored by the Public Performance Board.  In the case of the latter, by making a cryptic announcement to the audience that the play had been altered, the company were both throwing up their hands helplessly and milking the situation.  Instead of finding a creative way to show what they couldn’t tell they were accepting defeat and sitting comfortably in impotent opposition.  It was a little cheap and also reminded you that if these plays were meant to be about reconciliation and change then that had to be borne out in their processes as much as their products.  I was appalled that the two companies could not find a way to schedule their performances in such a way that they did not divide their audience, and that the few performers I spoke to beforehand were wary and suspicious of the other show.

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