A prelude to AnandaDrama’s “Grease Yaka Returns”, to be staged from the 17th to the 19th of August at 7.30 p.m. at the Lionel Wendt Theatre.
My friend Kris, with whom I’ve agreed to disagree, argues against the notion of culture. His reasoning is simple. What we understand as culture (and art) today is (according to him) a field cut off from actual experience. Call it “aestheticism” if you will, but his point is that as long as the artiste is cut off from the reality around him (or her), no theatre, no cinema, and no literature can thrive for long. Art that subsists on artifice only, which does not relate to the wider society of the author and his audience, is more or less devoted to its own workings. And in being devoted to its own workings like this, it fails to transcend the limitations of its medium and bring out something, anything, be it in the form of a message or a parable, which can help us understand who we are, what we are doing, and we can do to improve our condition. There are very few things about which I can agree with Kris. This issue, I feel, is one of them.
Take theatre, for instance. University dons and intellectuals have valiantly tried to turn it into an esoteric activity which is supposed to subsist on the artist’s individuality, but then isn’t it futile if we continue to define the medium on the basis of how it alienates popular audiences? Shakespeare, let’s not forget, did not write his plays intending them to be studied. He wrote them to entertain, and to relate them to the concerns and issues which ailed the society in which he lived. The same can be said of all those other playwrights and writers who tried to bridge the gap between individual genius and popular success in their work, right down to the 20th and the 21st centuries. One aspect of this revolution in theatre, if you can call it that, is socially conscious drama. No, it is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. I’m thinking here of Sri Lankan theatre, in particular Sri Lankan ENGLISH theatre. In that regard, this is not a review of a play, but an attempt at a sketch of that particular kind of drama.
University dons and intellectuals have valiantly tried to turn it into an esoteric activity which is supposed to subsist on the artist’s individuality, but then isn’t it futile if we continue to define the medium on the basis of how it alienates popular audiences?
I am sorry to say that I forgot to review one of the best satires to come out of the Lionel Wendt in recent years, Picket Republic, staged last December. Written and directed by Nishantha de Silva, Rajitha Hettiarachchi, and Isthartha Wellaboda, through AnandaDrama, in which they are leading members, the play tried, via a collaborative process, to offer some thoughts on the society and culture of protests and demonstrations which were rampant at the time. (Just days before it was staged, for instance, the Ceylon Electricity Board union threatened another uninterrupted strike.) 2017 can indeed be called the year of trade union agitation, but those behind Picket Republic did not, thankfully, turn its satirical overtones into an excuse to lampoon the trade unionists only. On the contrary, from the first Act and scene, it maintained a balance between fantasy and reality, puncturing the narrative with several vantage points from which we could assess the political and the social unfolding in the country. Protests and demonstrations were an integral element of all that, but there was more, much more (to give just one example, the tropical storm in the first Act which the Met Department did not forecast was, yes, that storm which swept through the country last November and was not tracked down by that very same Department).
And yet, Picket Republic was not an isolated phenomenon. Since of late, there has been a rise in the type of satirical theatre it projected that December night. You can call it “socially conscious” if you want to, refracted through humour and barely concealed contempt, but whatever you call it, you cannot ignore its relevance to a medium once associated with esoteric indifference. And not for no reason. As Gehan Gunatilleke wrote years ago, satire as is understood in the “Wendt-ian” sense was in danger of becoming a mere “antidote and morphine”, legitimising social hierarchies and hegemonies in the guise of making fun of them. These slick attempts at satire, in other words, did not “gravitate towards political commentary”, but rather, by overtly identifying particular characters with specific ideologies and personalities, encouraged a culture of indifference whereby even the politicians lampooned by them begin to see in them an alternative to resistance. They thus encourage these satires, because they don’t make us want to question reality, they want to make us make fun of it; so much so that through ceaseless repetition, satire becomes “cleverly packaged propaganda.”
I am not a “student” of theatre by any stretch of the imagination, and not being one, I cannot explore this anomaly - between the imperatives of satire and the absence of social consciousness in the satires we have seen - properly. I can, however, vouch for the veracity, and the genuineness, of the satires which have sought to transcend this anomaly and project themselves on audiences through a mixture of relevance and irreverence. This is the kind of satire which came to us through Picket Republic, the kind that roots itself in the socially conscious theatre promoted by the group behind that play, AnandaDrama. Before I go any further, however, a brief outline of the history of that group, and their valiant forays into this kind of theatre, is called for.
That “history” as such begins in 2006, when Nishantha, with a bunch of students, formed a Drama Society at their school, Ananda College. Their “baptism of fire” had been an extract from Timon of Athens, followed by “skit” performances of Macbeth, Coriolanus, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare had subsequently given way to more contemporary texts, when in 2013, having transformed themselves into AnandaDrama (a “Non-Profit Company Limited by Guarantee”), they forayed into satire with an original work, Alles in Wonderland (the title and allusion make it clear what they were aiming at), followed just a few months later by an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom. 2015 saw Dracula, staged sadly to an indifferent audience. More relevantly though, among these three productions, there was one which stood out on account of the themes it tackled and the form it made use of. This was Grease Yaka, which was devised, brought together players from various backgrounds, and saw the group collaborate with Ruwanthi de Chickera. As with Alles and Kensuke, however, I sadly missed it.
The awards and victories that AnandaDrama has clinched over the years, I’ve listed out elsewhere. For the purposes of this piece, it is enough for us to know that while they were not pioneers in socially conscious theatre (satirical or otherwise), they have, the way I see it, charted a fresh path for that genre. To be sure, before AnandaDrama became AnandaDrama in 2013, efforts had been made to bring out the socially relevant overtones of the medium. (To mention just two of them, Tracy Holsinger’s Travelling Circus in 2009 and Ruwanthi’s Checkpoint in 2001.) But at the time of Alles in Wonderland, Grease Yaka, and Picket Republic, there was a lull in the genre. Satire had deteriorated to self-congratulatory parody (as I’ve pointed out before) and the English theatre in general had become associated with esotericism, the sort that the “representatives” of “polite society” just had to go to as a matter of etiquette. With AnandaDrama, and more importantly the spate of plays they have staged from their inception, I see the emergence of a new kind of theatre, probably the most important we’ve seen in the medium for years. And as with all such new kinds of theatre, the one they have seemingly brought about has encouraged others to experiment in the genre.
What distinguishes the “socially conscious” thrust of AnandaDrama from other outfits and individuals that tout that label and have valorised it in the name of satire, I think, is the willingness on the part of that group to eschew the “easy way out” in any drama involving social and political undertones, i.e. the identification of one character with one ideology. It would be futile, in this sense, to attribute a set ideology to the players in a work like Picket Republic, not just because it is unproductive, but also because it was never the intention of the cast and crew behind it to make us interpret the political setting of the narrative in terms of real-life politicians. For instance, which political heavyweight would you associate with Her Pride (“Prauda Rajani”), the cast aside leader from the Picket Republic? Which astrologer would you associate with Chandragomara Kiruldeniya, an indispensible part of Her Proudness retinue?
In other words, by fleshing out the narrative and the characters, by attributing to them not just one but many ideologies, the team behind these productions are making us aware that society is not composed of set pieces, that politicians and administrators are not the unyielding types we think they are. Yes, being a satire, it is impossible to resist the urge to associate characters with their real life equivalents, and I will not say that AnandaDrama has completely turned away from it, but where it has resorted to it, it has ensured that the resultant simplifications do not offer a reductive interpretation of the society it claims to (re)present. Holding a mirror image to that society is not the objective of AnandaDrama (and it shouldn’t be, anyway); offering us a more nuanced, multifaceted reading of it is. In the end, both the cast and crew on the one hand and the audience on the other profit, because we, particularly the young, are tired of what has been advertised as socially conscious, and satire, throughout these past few years.