Attempting Political Theater; Engineering, Peradeniya and Their Theater (2011-2015): Some Observations.

This essay is based on three articles I had earlier written in 2011, 2013 and 2014, in concurrence with the DRAMSOC plays, annually held by the Ceylon Dramatic Society: an exclusive theater group in Peradeniya. The original essays were respectively titled Near Waterloo for Arts. Judge gives Punchihewa Death Row (2011), Serpent of a Fallen Paradise – the Return to Political Theater by Engineering, Peradeniya (2013), and Engineering Saves DRAMSOC from the Noose (2014), and the titles speak very much for the drift of my stance in each of the essays. The three discussions I had, in those ways initiated, were based on the recognition of a politically-nuanced elementary the players of the Faculty of Engineering, Peradeniya had invested on to bring into their theater through their productions a political and social consciousness, in a context where very little impulse of the kind was tethered by the DRAMSOC discourse as a whole, in more recent years.

My first DRAMSOC experience was in 2004. Between then and 2011, DRAMSOC was single-handedly dominated by the Faculty of Arts. Other Faculties – mainly, Engineering, Science and Medicine – were distant runner ups. Arts had vigour, skill, intent and was ready to experiment and improvise. In 2006, they staged a somewhat amateurish but experimental revival of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, on a trilingual platform. The way the Tamil was brought in was contrived, but the effort and the thinking behind the play couldn’t be ignored. Between 2004 and 2010, Engineering was, though distant, the closest rival Arts had. But, Engineering was often bankrupt in being localized in theater as a practice or occupation, and they often showed the greenness would-be engineers cast for the season to play players would show. They, however, learnt to keep up, though the keeping up was not entirely to the mark. When Arts went bi and trilingual, Engineering was quick to absorb. They, I think, were the best to understand the shifting rubrics of the DRAMSOC stage which, from the 1990s and early 2000s, was now moving away from conventional themes rehashed, to being a platform that was opening space to cater to an expanding audience with “the need for newness” in mind.

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Serpent in progress.

Engineering’s investment in the political and the social comes against a backdrop as what I have outlined. It also comes from a need to take on Arts at its own game, and perhaps – to surpass them, and to turn tables. Whatever the reasons were, in 2011, the Faculty of Engineering gave the DRAMSOC audience something they were not prepared for: Welikada 71, the story of a man being sentenced to death row, as he awaits his last stretch.  In all, the play, set around a character called Matthew Punchihewa, was a well-coordinated performance which came across as a strong critique of both the capital punishment and the impersonality of the judiciary. At one level, the play was a moralization, and the themes of politicization and the corruption of the judiciary system weren’t the freshest of themes. But, nor were Engineering students of theater as a discipline. Given the productions that were to follow in 2013 and 2014, Welikada 71 was a testing of the waters, of an intent to move away from the apolitical and the socially aloof. I personally felt that Welikada 71 was the better play of that night, though Arts won the day with a play titled Behind Closed Doors. My article was responded to with a labour of detail by Lohan Gunaweera, writing in his blog as Anandawardhana. He highlighted with graphics the technical flaws of Welikada 71. I responded to it with my own analysis of perceived drawbacks of Behind Closed Doors. Thankfully, the world didn’t end that night, nor did the world change.

Something that did change, however, was Engineering’s level of confidence in going political. They built on the platform laid with Welikada 71 with Serpent: a historically-sensitive, politically-committed re-reading of the Bandaranaike assassination of 1959. It was, in my reading, doubly significant as (against the turbulent times of post-Aluthgama and ongoing Bodhu Bala Sena intrigues) it tabled a bold critique of xenophobic nationalism bordering on racism and its manipulations as a political weapon. In part, what drew my attention was how the xenophobic rhetoric was set in play with obvious echoes of the ‘Sinhala chauvinistic’ demagoguery of our times. Serpent, in that way, chips into the grand narrative of mainstream history, subverting it to improvisation. 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. However, the DRAMSOC committee that year had invited three judges who, at one level, were, perhaps, not in their best to judge a competition of this kind; or, at least, so it was felt by their verdict, for they chose a jolly skit parodying Shakespeare by Science as the winner.

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Stephan Dedalus

Writing of the competition to a national newspaper, a Stephan Dedalus caricatured the event’s failure in a piece titled “Sorry DRAMSOC”.  For Stephan Dedalus, Serpent had been both monotonous and polarized in characterization, though I found this observation without basis as the characters of Reverends Buddharakkhitha, Somarama and Lal (a fictitious insertion which, I felt, was partly intrigued by the alleged connection of P. Malalgoda with the assassination of the Premier) show complexity in their representation of the tension and anxiety of being caught between paradoxical choices and decisions. My essay Serpent of a Fallen Paradise – the Return to Political Theater by Engineering, Peradeniya was partly a response to Dedalus, while attempting a comparative analysis of the play. Almost half a decade later, I still maintain that the panel of judges caused the bigger burlesque that evening, and that theater was at the receiving end.

Perhaps, the best achievement of the Engineering theater group was The Noose, staged in 2014. This was a shrewdly thought out production, partly in recognition of the saleable formula of melodrama as it was accepted by the DRAMSOC stage, and partly in recognition for the need of antidotes for gullible judges who may be misdirected to take a “skit” for a play. The Noose was also a careful negotiation of the bilingual theme, and Engineering was now willing to try out players (with raw skill in acting) who were linguistically more monolingual, in a play that was meant to cater to an English theater discourse. Engineering would try this ploy with one of their leading actors for the next two years as well – i.e, 2015 and 2016 – culminating with their DRAMSOC triumph in 2016, with a play called The Lullaby, but, perhaps, that set-piece was best used in The Noose. The “trick” was more visible in 2015, in their rehashing of the Aladdin story, and the near-operatic melodrama, The Lullaby, last year.

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In a way, The Noose had little competition on stage. Arts had decided to stage their worst production in all my viewing years, and Science was still milking their canisters of superficial humour. The Noose was psychologically-thrilling and socially-conscious as a theatrical venture, covering the story of a young man, who, in order to save the life of his terminally ill sister, goes into bankruptcy, finally, having his own daughter sacrificed in a desperate “dark bid” to save his sister (which, however, doesn’t cure the ailing woman). The play which strings the wide ends of melancholia with depression ends with suicide, where the protagonist hangs himself. The climactic final stunt leaves the audience gaping at a body that swings from a beam, mid stage. Engineering had certainly done their homework, but the play (unlike their subsequent attempts in 2015 and 2016) was not more to do with visual arrests and stunts, but an enterprise with well-coordinated theater, plot and presentation.

The importance I give this politically and socially localizable theater by Engineering is mainly because of their recognition of the social space and the climate in which they, as dramatists, are investing their time and creativity. While doing so, they are also experimenting with avenues to negotiate with the politics, the preoccupations and limitations of DRAMSOC as a discourse. Interestingly, parallel to this trajectory, the Faculty I consider is the more stronger contender – both in terms of concept, discipline and the proximity to theater as a practice – Arts, has, with the exception of Anna, Alone (2016) been less progressive in their commitments, even resorting to alienated / alienating themes and mechanics. Anna, Alone (2016), deeply psychological and relevant, was the better play of the tournament last year, but was judged against The Lullaby by Engineering. A short commentary I had written had caused offence to those close to The Lullaby, but hopefully, their dramatic impetus and commitment was not put to sleep.

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