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