“Serpent” of a Fallen Paradise — A Return to Political Theater by Engineering, Peradeniya.

This was originally carried in The Nation on June 23rd, 2013 as written by Molly Bloom; partly as a partial response to an article titled “Sorry DRAMSOC” — which the same paper had carried a fortnight earlier — by a Stephan Dedalus. Dedalus’ article can be found here: Sorry DRAMSOC by S. Dedalus
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Stephan Dedalus writing to The Nation recently under the heading ‘Sorry Dramsoc’ submits a strong critique of the inter-faculty English Drama competition of the University of Peradeniya, which was concluded a fortnight ago. The fact that the judges decided to award the plum to a ragtag ‘skit’ – which was injudiciously understood by them to be a ‘play’ – lay bare a fester the DRAMSOC dramas were paying scant attention to over the past few years: A lack in giving the organization of the drama contest sufficient and committed thought. The lethargy of inventiveness and the lack of creativity were to be seen in productions, play concepts as well as in the structure of the tournament and – not the least – in the judges you invite to do the honors.
Many questions can be asked regarding the rationale behind the choice of at least two of the three (if not all) in that panel this year, for DRAMSOC dramas offer the one and only cup in Peradeniya’s English drama circuit.One of the plays that received at the hands of the judges’ burlesque was Serpent: An original submitted by the dramatists of the Faculty of Engineering. I had the opportunity of seeing this play on the eve of DRAMSOC and found it both powerful and relevant to the tides and times. In the context of DRAMSOC – a competition which since late has deteriorated into a ritual of trite melodrama – Serpent showcased a historically-sensitive, politically-committed re-reading of the Bandaranaike assassination of 1959. One expects the university theater to be a threshold of politically perceptive theater; but, in the English dramatic tradition at Peradeniya, this is definitely not the case.
To see a group of players who were keen on re-reading the above phenomenon was, therefore, a positive incept.The second and more crucial significance of the play, as I felt it, was the bold critique it made of xenophobic nationalism (bordering on racism) and its crafty manipulation as a basic political weapon. The portrayal of the Reverend Buddharakkitha, in particular, was a powerful portrayal (a role for which Gihan Edirisinghe was awarded the Best Actor); but what drew my attention was how the xenophobic rhetoric was ingrained with not too unobvious echoes of the ‘Sinhala chauvinistic’ demagoguery of our times. Buddharakkitha’s chiding of Somarama, for instance, is a provocative resonance for anyone who has an eye on the world. This parallel between the times and the build up to the Bandaranaike assassination five decades ago is a point which Stephan Dedalus had missed out in his article.

Rev. Somarama and Lal in a behind the curtains exchange

Rev. Somarama and Lal in a behind the curtains exchange

As a re-reading of history for a 30 minute production I felt that the play had done its fair share, as a work of committed theater. This has to be marked, in spite of Dedalus’ reading of Serpent as a bland and two dimensional work. For Dedalus, the play is both monotonous and polarized in characterization (with binaries that lack conviction). The mapping of the characters in Serpent as being binaries holds very little weight and is best read as a very weak generalization. The characters of Reverends Buddharakkhitha, Somarama and Lal (a fictitious insertion which I felt was loosely based on the profile of P Malalgoda) show complexity in their representation of the tension and anxiety at being caught between paradoxical choices and decisions. In addition, one has to also consider what is given as taking place ‘off stage’, and forms an extension to the ‘on stage’ action. Nor can one consider polarization as an essentialist dramatic demerit either. Such idealism would disqualify a good part of world drama of all times and all creeds.

Revs. Buddharakkhitha and Somarama

Revs. Buddharakkhitha and Somarama

Serpent also chips into the grand narrative of mainstream history, subverting it to improvisation. The role of Lal and his ailing fiancée satisfy this intervention. The phone call which draws the late Bandaranaike from his security into isolation, too, is a creative adaptation of the mainstream narrative. This enables a further twist in the plot at the very end. Overall, I felt that Serpent was a motivated production, aimed at re-introducing a long overdue drip of political consciousness to Peradeniya’s English Drama circuit. It was a play that was willing to forego abstract theater (the Faculty of Arts) and burlesque (Faculty of Science) in both its reading of the times, the xenophobia of politics as well as in its creative intervention with history.

What happened at the DRAMSOC the next day (May 27) – to be mild – is a rude farce; but it is now history. In a time where the nation is in the seeing distance of the violent claws of demagoguery and hate-speech, three academic entitlements are offered a cup to produce a play. One unit resorts to abstract theater, while another resorts to burlesque. The third of the plays is The Serpent: The subject of my review. The latter wins all the main individual prizes. The Best Play and Production are awarded to the slapstick burlesque. As Shakespeare ‘sorry-lessly’ said, the world is (indeed) a stage – a queer stage – and we its actors.

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