Near Waterloo for Arts. Judge gives Mathew Punchihewa Death Row.

“Release the woman; bury the dead” – From, Sophocles: Antigone.


DRAMSOC 2011, for me, was more competitive and intriguing than what I presumed it would turn out to be. This was owing to two reasons – the powerful performance by the Faculty of Engineering, who came up with “Welikada 71”, which almost arrested the cup from the five-years-in-a-row champions the Faculty of Arts. Secondly, this year’s DRAMSOC saw a play titled “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak”, which, to me, was a progressive performance — and, by DRAMSOC’s standards, a rare treat.

To my mind the Faculty of Engineering was a few inches ahead of the Arts that evening, but the judges’ wisdom ruled otherwise. The strengths of “Welikada 71” lay in its powerhouse, well-coordinated performance – and their commitment to serious drama is a cue for contenders such as the Faculty of Science who, over the past few seasons, have resorted to skits and stuff: defeating the purpose of the competition; and preventing them from being seriously considered for the plum.

The E-Fac play presented the story of a man awaiting death row spending his last few days attempting to get an appeal worked out on his behalf. The play came across as a strong critique of both the capital punishment – for the man, Mathew Punchihewa, was shown as being wrongly accused and convicted – and of the stiffness, the arrogance and also the loopholes of the judiciary. Punchihewa being a victim of the politicization and the corruption of the system is no novel theme. Yet, the presentation carried an energy which was as good as any good play I have seen at recent DRAMSOCs. Gihan Edirisinghe, who played Mathew Punchihewa, won the trophy for the “Best Actor”.

The ultimate winner of the competition was “Behind Closed Doors” by the Faculty of Arts, whose adaptation was executed with class by its talented cast. Arts, in the process, produced the Best Actress of the competition in Crystal Baines. If “Welikada 71” dealt with the grievances of a social reject, “Behind Closed Doors” brought into life the chaos within a cosmopolitan, Colombo Sevenish domestic. The play was centered on Mevan’s (Dhanuka Bandara) marriage to Piyumi (Baines), which is marked by physical and psychological violence of sorts. Issues of mutual faithlessness, doubt, drunkenness, drugs, suicide, homicide etc set up a classic the modern-meets-the Jacobian setting. “Behind Closed Doors” and “Welikada 71”, together, offset the performances from the Faculties of Science and Medicine. The Science’s “Cinderella” lacked the seriousness or the temporal relevance the other plays strove to seek in their efforts. Not that I am being prescriptive in my evaluation, but a more committed effort – both in script-development and purpose – would have served the Science cause better; supposing, of course, that their “cause” is to bag a few top awards.

The mentality of the Peradeniya English-speaking hoity-toity class was in reflection through the two scripts, “Behind Closed Doors” and Medicine’s “Lost Souls”. Both plays were far removed from the day to day common walks, confined to the bedrooms and living rooms of a Colombo Sevenish cocoon; feeding us with petty feuds, debauchery, cross-cheating by husbands and wives who appear to have nothing better to do etc. This was quite intriguing, specially since the “Colombo Hi Soc-centric” vibe was very strongly transmitted; if not endorsed.

Arts Cast for "Behind Closed Doors"

However, the revealing moment of the entire contest came right at the end, when a second production from the Faculty of Arts titled “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak”, formed a scathing criticism of the superficial and wannabe “Peradeniya English speaking, DRAMSOC-going” culture. This was a subversive articulation in which not a single word of English was spoken. Of course, for the less drama-conscious socialite present at the auditorium this play was a sham and was “irrelevant”. I heard some inner-wheel members of the DRAMSOC in the audience say that this play was in any case not being judged for the main prize; that it was a “non-contestant” performance, or something to that effect. I am in the process of getting an official verification of the above, since if it indeed is a case of being “non-contestant”

  1. It is very wrong of the DRAMSOC organization to get a “group” to perform at a competition where prizes are at stake; knowing too well that their performance stands no chance of being appreciated by word or by certificate.
  2. Such performances (by a second Arts group – often by a delegate of its First Year: a practice that I have not been too happy about right throughout) have been judged and commented on in the past.
  3. The “main” Arts production could have done with the resources and energy that has gone into the “second” production, which, in any case, will not be judged.

Staying with “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak”, the play / improvisation was lost on the audience. In that sense, for them, it became yet another drama. In my limited DRAMSOC experience this was also the first time I have seen a “Sinhala only” play being enrolled. For some of us “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak”, was the crucial moment of the entire event. The script involves two players: an “Illusioned Man” and the “Man in the Next Room”. The characters were powerfully portrayed by Isuru Samarasinghe and Akira Wijekoon who, among them, showed much class and ability. In spite of this performance being both radical and politically compelling it was also the least appreciated drama of the evening. While the contestants from all the four Faculties were given at least a trophy for “lighting” or “stage décor”, “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak” was the sole performance that didn’t even deserve a word of encouragement from the judges.

Gihan Edirisinghe

The judges of the evening were Nick Kendall, Geeshani Dias-Desinghe and Priyantha Fonseka. Incidentally, both Mr. Kendall and Ms. Dias-Desinghe have been repeated features at DRAMSOC over the past few editions. Unless I am mistaken, this wasKendall’s third successive run as judge at the contest; and Dias-Desinghe’s second. This tells us a lot about the DRAMSOC organizing committee in their commitment at sustaining credibility for a contest of this magnitude. Not that I devalue the services granted by the judges in question, but surely, we are not as impoverished as not to have a panel of judges that has credentials to support their “wisdom”. Besides, what credibility does the DRAMSOC court by having the same set of judges over and over again? 

The comments made by the judges – Ms. Dias-Desinghe did the formalities – were amateurish. In a patronizing delivery she, on behalf of the judges, applauded the participants and upheld their courage and their commitment in their performances. Obviously, this is the kind of speech you expect some patronizing adult to give at a secondary school fancy dress parade. Perhaps, the judges bought into the “high school” atmosphere, which the DRAMSOC had sponsored by the choice of announcers they had installed on stage. To say the least, the announcing was horrible and a grammatical disaster. The male announcer, in particular, should not have been there. Both had their “speech” written out in sheets of paper and once the paper blew off were caught in mid stage not knowing what to say next. It was a classic parody of a Grade 3 Class Assembly. And their sense of humour was soooooo not funny. It is good to do the entire Woody Allen thing only if you can manage it. But, you should stick to the basics and cut out on the mavericks when you are not equipped with the English or the sense of humour to pull it through in front of a massive crowd.     

"Waterloo izz mine"

Why the DRAMSOC committee couldn’t come up with a more competent set of announcers is a mystery which, I sincerely hope, will die with that evening. DRAMSOC is one of the oldest running annual drama competitions of the island. There, too, are many outsiders who come to witness these plays. The negligence of the organizers in appointing announcing of questionable quality challenges the credibility of both the association; and even more so, of the university as an institute.

The Hit List:

  1. Best Play – “Behind Closed Doors”: Arts.
  2. Best [sic] Director – “Welikada 71”: Engineering
  3. Best Actor – Gihan Edirisinghe (Mathew Punchihewa): Engineering
  4. Best Actress – Crystal Baines (Piyumi): Arts 

14 thoughts on “Near Waterloo for Arts. Judge gives Mathew Punchihewa Death Row.

  1. I fail to understand why you aren’t giving due credit to the medical faculty. I thought theirs was a play that richly deserved a few more gongs in the top tier.

  2. Also please keep in mind the sci fac guys had only two days to put together wat the did on stage so a little bit of understanding on your part would suffice:)

  3. Well, to be frank, I didn’t think the Medical one was all that outstanding. What other awards you think they should have got is seriously beyond me. Now that this has come up — the “accent” of the lead female was horrendous. The lines were rushed and often overlapping. Compared to “Welikada 71”, the plot was both pretentious and irrelevant.

    And regarding Science — it is not the audience’s problem how many days they spend over their performance. The competition was announced months ago. If they prepared in two days it is a testimony of their commitment and discipline isnt it? Im merely responding to what I saw, mate. Thats all.

  4. 🙂
    I completely agree with almost everything written here. And yes I agree that some matters such as announcing, the committee should have worked in much more responsible manner, i personally never thought that it would make you write like THIS. But overall, I don’t see any reason to say that the organizing was that bad. So, these ‘should’ve’s might not repeat next year, thanks for pointing them out…

    • This is nothing personal Pradeepa. Even though it sounds harsh and without sympathy, its just the way I write. If you check the blog you will see that this is the “tone” i have adopted in commenting on everything i have written about.

      It doesn’t mean that I personally don’t appreciate what is being done. I am fully aware of the shit you guys have to push through. So, don’t take this as a personal attack. It is just a critical commentary on what was on.

  5. IMHO at least one of the medi female leads deserved (i’m not referring to the accented one)an award.. i thought she was great and pardon me, but the judges’ choice of Best Actress was horrendous mate.. (honestly i saw no life, purpose or magic in THAT performance.., IMHO that was th eweakest award of Best Actress i have ever seen at Dramsoc).. Best Supporting Actress was a bit of a mixed bag but once again the true jury is out on that as well…

    I’m no drama expert but I suppose the science guys see another side of drama u don’t which is why they wish to promote the childish sense of fun (sort of like a throwback to the good ol’ days)…honestly theirs is the only type of drama less refined folk like us can fathom let alone understand… either way i guess science drama has lost some of its sheen compared to the days when Black Adder and Troy were staged.

    Also the announcing; c’mon man, i mean it wasn’t the kid’s fault that he was asked to compeer.. as far as i know he’s a fresher and knew next to nothing as far as what was in store… the entire blame should be on the Dramsoc org com for allowing that to happen and i don’t think anyone has the right to criticize the poor kid just cuz his English or accent isn’t upto the mark (i.e as good as yours or the privileged arts folk)

    • Several things in your response:

      You’re arguing that Nujha Nazeem should have won Best Actress, then? Well, sounds like a noble argument to have, but I felt that Piyumi of “Behind Closed Doors” had something worth the while to be adjudicated for the prize she got. Also, the Medical play didn’t come out too well, which may have also disallowed the candidate you name to have made too deep an impact.

      Science doing satire is not a problem to me. Just saying that, in the context of the competition, if they resorted to a more fledged production they may have an “equal chance” of having a run for a top prize. It’s a psychological game isn’t it — it’s a matter not merely of “giving a good time”, but also of working within a framework of relevance: which is what “Welikada 71” was about.

      I am saying the announcing debacle was a fault of the organizing committee. I mean, it’s not a big issue to me, though I write of it here. But, you see the point I hope.

      Regarding “criticizing the [announcer]”, I do have the right to criticize. That is why the critic is around and that is why I am writing this. My “accent” or “English” being good or bad is not even an issue — I am making some points which occurred to me at Peradeniya’s premier English Drama contest. That’s all. Even if your English is relatively weak, one should be perceptive of these things methinks.

      • Regarding the Best Actress award, yes the medi drama was a bit hackneyed and truncated but there’s no denying that Ms. Nazeem’s performance came out way better and more polished than Ms. Baines’. I am not a fan of Ms Baines’ work at Dramsoc because her performance was mechanical and voice monotonous and just cuz a drama came off well overall and was ‘adjudged’ best play that don’t mean that it should particularly win the acting honors (haven’t there been plenty of instances where mediocre dramas produced Award winning performances at Dramsoc?) Judging by your argument, the bloke from the Medi fac (Upali) shouldn’t have won Best Sup Actor (even though i think he did a damn fine job)and that should’ve gone to the bearded bloke from ‘Behind Closed Doors’. Comprende?

        As for the sci fac, well i spose they aren’t ‘blessed’ with intellectuals who are capable of drawing comparisons ART-wise to those of the other facs. I guess at the end of the day their mantra seems to be to give prominence to the cast and crew’s fun and thereby lend to the audience’s enjoyment. But i spose a mutual point u n i can agree on is that the science dudes can come up with a more polished performance.. no doubt:)

        Regarding announcing, i do see your point but all i can say is he not to blame. He’s a fresher and it seems to me like someone (who should’ve known better) gave him a dead rope by telling him to go ‘knock himself out’ on stage. (it’s like sending lambs to the slaughter if you ask me)

      • I am very thankful to you for this discussion. Well, the announcer — I am sure just becos ur a fresher you dont have to do every damn thing that is unloaded on you. Should have known his strengths and merits. Personal opinion, but then again, I am sure there may be many who agree with me.

        Science Fac — well yeah: that’s what I say in the blog isn’t it? I say that a reconsideration of their scope will give them a better chance at competing evenly.

        Best Actress — Since the last exchange, I have had a fresh thought: I am wondering whether the judges never considered Nazim for “Best Actress” to begin with. Perhaps, that role was considered as a supporting role.

        But, I have no way of agreeing with your comparison of Nazim and Baines. This is of course my view, but, what you deem as “mechanical” and “monotonous” are part of that emotionally displaced, oppressed character. Besides, I felt that Piyumi’s role represented several “moods” (as opposed to your claim of monotony), which came through well. It was a complex portrayal, you have to give credit for that. Besides, Nazim’s was not as vital a portrayal as you make it sound.

        I mean, if we’re looking for near “seconds” to Crystal Baines, even Namali Premawardhana (whose role should not strictly fall into a “supporting” category) and the NGO girl in “Welikada 71” come over and above either of the Med Fac female leads.

  6. Hmm….Nice criticism bro.Totally agree with you.Yep the judges should have to consider little more on the last drama named “Thawath Eka Drama Ekak”At the moment I thought that they have a possibility to win the award for Lighting and Sound.But unfotunately they didn’t.
    Taking about the MedFac Drama.I think they have a trouble with the power of their voices.Because for back of the audience didn’t hear some of the lines clearly except channa’s(Upali).And considering all aspects Channa(Upali) is the best supporting actor throughout the competition,in my point of view.
    And also about the announcing…I think it is due to lack of experiences.If it is the first time that they perform as announcers they have to practice it very well before perform.(Even experts also practice at least one hour before they perform.)
    Anyhow thumbs up bro.Nice Criticism.Good Luck!

  7. Pingback: DRAMSOC 2011: “Thavath Ekthara Drama Ekak”, And The “Tragedy” Of Our Batch « The Chronicles of Aki

  8. yah, i wuz there – while ago now. Bit harsh on the organisers, eh, I thought the event was smooth, Too much overacting though, especially in the last 2 plays. CB deffo best actress and BHC edged Welikada as acting much better, no? You seem to agree mostly with the judges, V, so wot’s the deal. Jealousy, dude, say it ain’t so?

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