In the course of the play, the needle that threads the five scenes together – Waruna, the young, disillusioned lawyer – moves from an upright vocal position to a slumped mute phase, a sprawled, seat-less passage; and finally, to an unconscious mugged up position, prostrate and senseless. Aslam Marikar’s “Twenty First Century Monk”, in its occupation with space and with movement, is a strong rebuke of Lankan politics, as we have come to inherit it. There is no open ideological barrage, but with subtle evocations borrowed from our day-to-day living spaces, Marikar provokes a discussion of how Lanka – akin to Waruna – has been pulled down and beaten senseless.
The politics of which Marikar speaks includes “domestic politics”, the politics of “the law being a document without a conscience or consciousness”, “religious politics”, “prison politics”, “caste/class politics”, “region-based politics” etc. Even as the audience greets with gusto the philandering Ajith (Sidath Samarakoon) and his pinching the bum of his mistress Catherine (Ruwanthi Karunarathna) – who, so to self-consciously exhaust the cliché, is the “best” friend of Ajith’s wife Anoma – the political underpinnings of the text have already begun to sting. In fact, the play fiddles with the political consciousness of the audience, who may howl with laughter borrowed from a Jack London novel; but who is asked to take a step back and apply the formula to their own prides and prejudices.
There are two places in the play where “regionalism” and “caste” get spoken of. One is in the extensive Ajith-Anoma domestic scene, while a reprise of the same issue is injected into the Asylum Scene. Curiously enough, part of the non-economy class rows were filled with several famous faces from Kandy’s elite, semi-elite and wannabe-elite hoods, for whom being “Kandyan” and being with “upcountry ancestry” matters several times more than the gold-plated jewellery they wear to the “Twenty First Century Monk” premier. These under-evolved specimens of the Central Province were heard to laugh a bit louder when the “lunatic” with the bandanna and Che Guevara shirt, “Rohana” (Darren David, a.k.a DJ Danny) condemns the walauva class as those who betrayed the country, as that is how elites generally laugh.
The “Asylum scene” was a powerful role play of Lanka’s six decades of post-independence. Here, we have four characters – Richard, Samanmalee, Munidasa and Rohana – who are in a “nut house” (as Rohana constantly reminds us), contributing to mutual chaos and engaging in a series of overlapping “mad acts”. Rohana with his Che T-shirt and consistent criticism of Richard and Samanmalee (both claiming to be of aristocratic descent) could possibly be a caricature of the slain JVP leaderRohana Wijeweera. Munidasa, in Arya Sinhala suit and with pedantic speech, mock represents the “nationalist sentiment” of which all mainstream political parties, including the JVP, have been consorts since Independence. Richard – a proponent of the West and with the same first name as the country’s first Executive President – woos both Samanmalee (from a Kandyan walauva, and casted to shadow Sirima Bandaranaike) and Munidasa in a “role play” of power politics. Samanmalee, at one point, accuses Rohana of attempted rape (1971), while Richard beats Rohana up (1987-89), thus, “saving” Samanmalee.
The commentary on “religious politics” was executed with daring, as a robust, thug-like monk – in every aspect down to the brand of spectacles – who can but be the doppelganger of the Bodhu Bala Sena General Secretary interferes to disperse a “charlatan” at practice. Even as I don’t attempt a scene-to-scene analysis of the play, Marikar’s rapid shifts into diverse political spaces of the nation and his dramatization of these pluralities were intriguing, to say the least. The Prison Scene with which the play ends should also be mentioned in this regard, even though that was one of the least projected passages of play.
“Twenty First Century Monk”, I am told, was an experimentation in production. The cast consisted of a myriad talent drawn from a diverse range, bringing in different theater experience into the play. Some, I am told, had never crossed a stage before. Among the players, I learn, were Account Analysts, Insurance Salesmen, Rockers, students, Supermodels, DJs, Physician Doctors and those unemployed. However, one of my concerns was as to whether the cast in its present form could carry the weight of the demanding, multi-layered script with which Aslam Marikar opens the curtain. The play consists of a strong legal-ethical, philosophical topping, drilling into existentialist musings and questionings of the self and existence. I have a feeling that some of the punch lines were missed, resulting in our viewing experience being like watching a Boxing bout on a TV with bad reception.
Some Scenes – such as the Prison Scene, for instance – was badly compromised by amateurish / “under-rehearsed” play. This largely neutralized strong moments and passages carved through the acting of players such as Anaz Haniffa (Richard / The Don), Praweena Bandara (Samanmalee) and DJ Danny (Rohana). Marikar’s fusion of a variety of humours – from classical Old Comedy to contemporary Dark Humour forms – was a refreshing blend, with textual and situational comedy aligned along slapstick, farce and burlesque. Elsewhere, it was mentioned that the play strived to cross wires between the Nadagam Tradition and the Classical Western mould: an experiment which came out without too many short circuits; if, as mentioned, the cast could be pushed one gear atop.
Personally, I felt that casting choices could be rethought of in one or two cases, and that a re-visioning of the “tempo” of Waruna’s initial monologue could have helped things a bit. But, that is my thinking out loud and I am not the Producer or the Casting Manager. But, as a whole, the play delivered to the audience, tickling them to tears, though I wonder whether some of the nuances – of the nuances that were palpably projected – tickled the right places in the right way. Of course, part of the audience was “ready to be pleased” (which is understandable) and another was of a slightly thicker hide. It also factors in as to what and what not an audience is in search for in a play: are we all equally in search of existentialist angst and philosophical moping; or, are we equally motivated by the bum pinching and the stepping on a banana peel?
“Twenty First Century Monk” has to travel. It has to rehearse and rethink, but it must – like all good art – travel downhill and all island around. I am a writer who has made enough enemies owing to this blog space alone, but I choose to encourage “Twenty First Century Monk” with an entry of carefully chosen words, as I see in Sri Theater a positive and progressive approach to drama and the culture of moulding an “inclusive” theater team. In other words, what begins with this Premier might be an initiative which, if properly taken and groomed, can very well change the trajectory of Lanka’s English theater: a short-sighted, unenlightened, cluster of mimics of the West who can surely benefit from a simple-minded Monk.