“Swings of Love” is literally about swings. You see four of them as the curtain opens. There is a sash suspended, rope like, at the centre between them.
The single character of this play literally can’t exist without them.
During the one hour duration of the play, she acts out her emotional life on these swings and the sash.
The swings revolve around her and her life unravels on and around the swings.
This experimental play is a fusion of ideas and talent between director M. Safeer and Italian actress Julia Filippo (though the word actor is now used for both sexes without gender bias in Europe).
Based on a Sinhala script written by poet and novelist Manjula Wediwardena (translated into English by Dilini Eriyawala), “Swings of Love” may be described as an emotional unraveling (including mood swings) of a woman scarred, if not scorned, by love through monologue and physical movements which express her continuously shifting emotional states.
Safir has an extensive experience in the Sinhala theatre. We have this classification of theatre and film according to linguistic and ethnic criteria, and there is of course a Sinhala theatre and an ‘English’ theatre divided along these lines.
As such, ‘Swings of Love’ should belong to the English theatre, which essentially limits its scope because the latter is Colombo-based.
But this is a production with international scope, produced by Inter Act Art and to be premiered at the IAPR international theatre festival in Pune, India in November. It will be staged too, at festivals in South Korea and elsewhere. But, since this is a play produced in Sri Lanka, it’s worth looking at its impact on Sri Lankan audiences on both sides of the linguistic divide.
As far as the Sinhala theatre is concerned, this would amount to culture shock. Julia Flippo is trained in the physical theatre, with its emphasis on expressing emotions and states of mind through body language.
This is common enough in Europe where modern theatrical experimentation has been the standard for decades. In this country, with its fixation on conventional narrative, plot twists and an obsessive use of comedy when it comes to serious themes, there is little emphasis on body language.
The same holds for the country’s English theatre. For most theatre goers, the idea of expressing the gamut of emotions that love can produce by using theatrical devices such as swings would be alien, even absurd. At the start of the play, the solitary female character is seen reclining on a swing, reading a book. She keeps on reading silently for quite a while. In our theatre, attention spans are much shorter. It would be hard for someone nurtured in the Sinhala theatre to focus on that solitary, ominously silent figure for so long without his or her attention wandering.
When she starts moving, we notice that her dress is quite short – unacceptably short for a local play. Last year, a play staged at the Peradeniya university open air theatre got booed because one female character wore a short dress. The length of an actor’s dress may seem immaterial, but this is all about cultural conditioning and resulting culture wars.
A dress of this length would be daring, even unacceptable, if worn by a Sri Lankan actress. It’s quite acceptable when worn by a Westerner.
This is the double standard imposed on us by neo-colonialism and our own chronic inability to outgrow cultural stereotyping, the same double standard which allows kissing, sex and nudity in foreign films but bans them on our productions.
Based on a Sinhala script written by poet and novelist Manjula Wediwardena “Swings of Love” may be described as an emotional unraveling (including mood swings) of a woman scarred, if not scorned, by love through monologue and physical movements
There is no sex and nudity in this play. Instead, there is a miasma of sensuousness, fully embodied by that clinging white dress, befitting to the topic that is explored. Julia Filippo performs a series of movements with the swings and the sash – graceful, and requiring the balance and skills of a gymnast. Her voice rises and falls, from a whisper to a shrieking crescendo, as she talks about love – analyses, wonders, sighs, and screams. At times whimsical, she says repeatedly: There is love, after all.” Sometimes, she hangs in there so precariously that one feels she might lose her balance and fall down.
But it’s the body movements that command attention more than the words. This is a totally different theatre experience from what we are used to. The dress is designed to emphasize the body movements through which the actor conveys her emotional states. Understanding this requires a different set of interpretive skills than what Sri Lankan theatre offers its audiences.
It will be staged too, at festivals in South Korea and elsewhere. But, since this is a play produced in Sri Lanka, it’s worth looking at its impact on Sri Lankan audiences on both sides of the linguistic divide
A Sri Lankan actress, if trained properly, can perform similarly if we imagine for a moment that someone staged something similar for the Sinhala theatre. But the onus isn’t just on the actress and the director. The audience too, must have the interpreting skills necessary to appreciate such a performance. One can’t presume that reactions will be negative. One must do it and check. On the other hand, one can make a broad assumption that our training in the theatre isn’t geared for this, and that training must start at school level. But we don’t have the teachers skilled in such modern theatre techniques, except here and there.
She keeps on reading silently for quite a while. In our theatre, attention spans are much shorter. It would be hard for someone nurtured in the Sinhala theatre to focus on that solitary, ominously silent figure for so long without his or her attention wandering
On the whole, this is a bold new experiment as far as our theatre goes. The question is whether “Swings of Love” will remain ‘festival theatre’ just as we have a stream of ‘festival’ films which are geared to foreign film festivals and not for the local market. The acid test will be a Sinhala version performed by a Sri Lankan actress. Only then can we know.
Julia Filippo performs a series of movements with the swings and the sash – graceful, and requiring the balance and skills of a gymnast