Danuka Bandara and his cast staged the debut of his “The Commode” – a bilingual improvisation – to a homely house at the EOE, Peradeniya last Sunday [11th July]. It was set off as an absurdist play with a subtitle that translated as: “my libido is not your colony”. Sexy!
“The Commode” can be roughly broken down into four main “sections” / sequences – the opening scene where a guy in uniform-white sits on an isolated commode as two “intellectuals” come and objectify him into a specimen. The second sequence begins when the said “intellectuals” become investors of a fishery programme and begin an enterprise – fishing in the commode. This sequence of play extends to the point where a group of “trade unionists” come and take over the commode. Then, the scene is set for a not-too-tender love scene between a woman and a man. The last phase of the play is, in fact, an extension of the “trade unionist” stint (sequence 2): where there is a bitter and prolonged contest for the “ownership” of the commode; in the course of which the commode is smashed and smothered into bits.
The play is tangibly absurdist. It seams through numerous relatable socio-political tensions of the day – partly absurdifying them, being critical of some; and as Danuka Bandara himself describes it: “kit[s]chifying” the kit[s]chifiable (brackets mine). Like, whatever God.
The section that made the biggest impact on me is the one where the two “trade unionists” (sequence 2), return on stage to contest for the ownership of the “commode” – ultimately smashing it into bits, after a near death struggle with each other. The two contestants – whose “absurd” speech is coded in essentialized binary opposites – scorn, swear at and run riot trying to “get hold of” the “commode”. Then, the two of them – the prolonged chasing done – join forces to smash the object of their desire into pulp.
The “commode”, to me, are these “universal truths” and “comfort zones” that we s[h]it on: things like “Nation”, “Nationality”, “Religion”, “Republic”, “Democracy” – those consumer items that usually begin with a capital letter and which claim to “define us”, while – as Danuka seems to state -, in fact, “confounding us”, making us wander, riot, fight, lost: all done in circles. Be it an “intellectual”, an “author” / definer, a “trade unionist” or a “lover”, we only seem to occupy the said comfort zones of our convictions and try to arrange / relate to the universe making our position all the more sacred and inviolable.
For instance, (in the first sequence) the “intellectuals” suddenly hit on the epiphany that the “subaltern” is not, as assumed, the “subaltern”; then, you fight the epiphany the easy way off: you re-define the “subaltern status” of the subject. That gives you – the subject – the mileage to live another day; and, in the final analysis, that mileage is what counts. Similarly, when you find the fishery does not yield a good profit (sequence two), you, in turn, yield the fishery to the “trade unionists”, pack your bags and move house.
The dialogue in the last sequence of play, where the two agonists chase each other around the place shouting in binaries, to me, reflects the dominant state ideology of the day. We are known to live in a time and a climate where sharp political divides have been propounded and promoted by the state for its own benefit and well being. For instance, 2009 will be known as the year of the “patriot” and the “traitor”. This, too, was the year when the armed militant forces patronized by the state defeated a rebellious-to-the-state army led by Prabhaharan and an eelamist ideology. But, in the name of consolidation, we have since had an “eelamization” of all that is opposed to and alternative to the state mandate. One should not be too amused here – since, this is the pulp with which empire and absolutism is made; though one is given sufficient space to be aware of it; and to be disapproving of the same.
The two contestants in question shout out, shooting random binaries at each other:
Contestant 1: “Kalu” (black)
Contestant 2: “Sudu” (white)
Contestant 1: “Ethi” (having)
Contestant 2: “Nethi” (not having)
Contestant 1: “Gama” (village)
Contestant 2: “Nagaraya” (town)
Contestant 1: “MR”
Contestant 2: “SF”
In that fiercely contested battle for the Presidency in January 2010, “MR” and “SF” had entered the binary code book; and have most surely become “keys” of the local political affinities / definitions. Danuka’s insertion of “MR-SF” work on a bathetic note – and they stand out to critique the post-January political climate of Sri Lanka: how alliances, loyalties, promotions, transfers, offices, cases, increments, fears, suspicions, abductions, disappearances etc have been based on this very dichotomy. All in all, to me, that “struggle in binaries” (acted out by Ashan and Tania) was a revealing moment of the play.
However, “The Commode” was one of those pills that live up to expectation, but don’t offer too much either. For instance, part of the action was both clichetic and with an air of déjà vu. The “intellectuals’” discovery that the “subaltern can speak” and their remedy – to subvert the discourse – is a well shred academic context. Then, again, the “love scene” (Crystal and Thilina) is much theory-laden and evocative of an unmistakable déjà vu factor with its self-conscious references to the “womb”, the “penis”, and the cigarette smoking. The theoryladenness is, in fact, an extension from the play’s opening scene.
But, then, again, at one level, the play can be read as a response to theory and theorization. The 2nd / 3rd Year undergraduate status is a point where you get colonized with a massive load of theory, inverted commas, political correctness and the like. One way of negating the accusation of the “cliché and the déjà vu” is to state that the sections in question are, in fact, caricatures – which, in that sense, could even be the case. Since it is absurdist theatre – the substance holds. Period.
One element that gelled down well was the two musical interludes / injections. Halfway through, “The Commode” chucks out a rendition of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and another prolific original score – the title of which I am ignorant of; but, a item that makes a pulse-pulsing end to that prolonged but engaging “womb-penis” love scene which I have already referred to.
“The Commode” cast is original – and given that their energies and creative agendas remain focused, they may present Lankan theater with much. I am told that Danuka Bandara is already onto the writing of his 2nd – “The Othering of the Self”. But, I wish they would re-visit “The Commode” and take it out a bit showing it around.