A highly commendable production by Ranjith Wijenayake
While watching Ranjith Wijenayake’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Punchi Theatre last Wednesday, you could easily visualise a cloud-based stage of epic proportions gliding down gently to cover a yawning abyss – the gaping mouth of a cultural black hole created by the gradual divorce of serious works of world literature fr om the Sri Lankan stage.
There was a time when the Sinhala theatre took pride in staging translations of Ibsen, Chekhov, and even Shakespeare. Brecht headed this list, with Henry Jayasena’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle being notable, followed by versions of The Good Woman of Setzuan, Galileo, Arturo Ui and other works.
Serious theatre got swamped by the new wave of comedies, many of them shoddy and of no lasting value, following the indecent success of Nihal Silva’s Sergeant Nallathamby. This has been countered, though not checked, by a new wave of Sinhala dramatists with original creations, including Rajitha Dissanayake, Chamila Priyankara and others.
But the healthy tradition of translating and producing the world’s great dramas is almost extinct. Only veteran dramatist Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has stubbornly persisted in bringing foreign plays to the Sinhala theatre. The occasional attempt by new faces to produce a classic play for our stage usually results in mediocre productions which are both artistically and technically deficient.
In this context, Ranjith Wijenayake’s effort is highly commendable, all the more since he’s relatively unknown. A lawyer and a retired vice-principal, it’s sheer love of the theatre which compelled him to bring this production, title ‘Dhairya Matha,’ to fruition after a lot of hard work and experimentation.
First, he translated the play into Sinhala from John Willet’s English translation from the German original. “Dhairya Matha’ was first produced as an entry to the 2012 school drama festival, winning awards and accolades. But Ranjith Wijenaike didn’t stop there. He was determined to do a full-fledged production for the Sinhala theatre.
At a time when even reputed dramatists cannot find a producer to invest money in a serious play, Wijenayake had to fall back on personal resources. His greatest asset, however, is his knack, and luck, in finding an actress who can bring alive one of the best known and most difficult female characters in the history of the theatre, alongside Lady Macbeth, Antigone, Mme. Ranevsky or Nora Helmer.
The school girl actress in the 2012 production was excellent. But, as she could no longer take part due to health reasons, the director chose Anushka Withanage, a university graduate in drama, to play Mother Courage.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the bubbling energy she puts into her role makes her equal to the sum of all other parts in this play. Though one could argue that she looks too young to be the mother of three grown up children, one hardly notices this because of the rapid changes of mood and tone this actress is capable of. As Mother Courage, she brings alive those qualities which make it possible for a travelling salesperson to survive a vicious thirty years war across Europe in the 17th century. She is wily, calculating, manipulative, domineering and submissive in turn. It’s a tantalizing performance. It’s possible to interpret Mother Courage as an embodiment of globalization in cahoots with military adventurism and cynical religious opportunism. This is a very big role, and Withanage manages it with aplomb.
Faced with this one person’s artistic onslaught, other cast members can only support or play counterpoint. Venushka Oshadi Karunathilake as Kattrin, Muditha Rupasinghe as the priest, Pavithra Piyumal Rathnayake as the cook, Charith Senanayake as the sergeant, Vindhya Jayasinghe as Yvette, Shantha Priyadharshana as Eiliff and Pasan Samaranayake as Swiss Cheese brought Brecht’s characters to life with an elan which made me recall Henry Jayasena’s Hunuwataye Kathawa.
The music by Nadeeka Weligodapola and Dinupa Kodagoda is minimalist in keeping with Brecht’s dramatic requirements. The lighting too, was in the same vein. But one wonders if today’s Sinhala theatre audience is sophisticated enough to grasp such subtleties, dulled as it is by several decades of low-grade entertainment and lack of exposure to good foreign works.