Saturday, July 31, 2010

Othello, or I Hate The Lure

Rotary and the YMCA have much to answer for. Just as much as their inter-school Shakespeare competition has been the cradle of local English theatre these many years—witness, for example, its illustrious graduates in this production’s cast—it has also wrought the tragic dumbification of Shakespeare for Sri Lankan audiences. Othello says, before he dies: “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate / Nor set down aught in malice.” If only they’d listened, instead of being lured into the chimerical quest of improving Shakespeare. The pity of it, Iago, the pity of it.

This production of Othelloat the Lionel Wendt through Sunday—begins with a puppet show. Othello, Desdemona and Cassio sway sinuously, surrounded by svelte sybils in silver and sable, as Iago, demonically, pulls their strings. What Shakespeare omitted, Royal supplies. That Shakespeare’s subtleties should be subject to such simplification shouldn’t surprise—the kids at “Shakes” have done it for years. One thought the adults would have known better. Instead, what one gets in an otherwise decent production are some jarring gimmicks that mar the play.

Take, for instance, the catastrophic miscalculation of starting off with the “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul” speech. We are given Othello at the height of his anguish, his spirit broken by Iago’s machinations but his heart tearing at his murderous resolve. It is the peak of the play. Shakespeare knew what he was doing by keeping it to the very end. Serving it first up is like dishing out the main course before the appetiser, the soup, the salad and the sorbet. It does not wash down well, and it robs the play—and poor Othello himself—of the climax to build towards.

The magic of Othello is in watching this rank outsider, having worked his way to the very pinnacle of Venetian society, slowly disintegrate. The play’s structure facilitates this admirably—Othello appears to us midway through the first act as a man “of royal siege”, a man of stature and moment, capable of freezing a fight with his words, claiming to be “rude in his speech” but holding us spellbound with his tales. In the space of just two scenes he is established—it takes three more acts to tear him down. By first showing us the rubble he is to become, this production robs his edifice of its glory.

Another mistake is the eliding of the scene where Emilia gives Iago Desdemona’s handkerchief. Instead of an exchange that provides key psychological insights to the workings of this strange marriage, we get the sybils. They flutter, snatch and whip ever-larger pieces of cloth from one to another, until—well, to be honest, I missed it in the flurry. The net impact is more drastic—Emilia, straining by the end to elaborate this elision and expose Iago’s perfidy, achieves a hammy, ear-splitting hysteria. Although this matches the ridiculous overacting of Brabantio, Roderigo and several extras earlier on, it destroys what was shaping up to be a creditable performance.

But enough cavils. Though dumbed down and robbed of its thrusting pulse, this Othello is by no means a bad production. Sterling performances intermingle with dross, but shine so bright they transcend. Desdemona is played with a rare grace and intelligence; Iago is richly interpreted; Othello intermittent; Cassio provides able support. The clarity of speech is excellent; the acting slick in stages. Despite its many flaws, this is a play worth watching. It’s not like we get much Shakespeare in Colombo anyway.

Now, if only they'd avoided the lure...

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Travelling Circus of Pretension

So, this is what happens when a bunch of Colombo’s arty thespians take it into their heads to draw recent events on an allegorical map and shit all over it.

Based on a short story by someone who calls himself MASii, The Travelling Circus by Mind Adventures is a cheap knockoff of Salman Rushdie in his Haroun and the Sea of Stories phase, centring on a boy who speaks in numbers living in a village where everyone else speaks in colours.

Preceded by a suitably whimsical musical introduction, the director and self-avowed ring-mistress begins the play by situating it in the Village of Fat Hopes on the Island of Short Memories. She calls it the Travelling Circus of Refugees.

What follows is a ghastly wallowing in pseudo-intellectual pseudo-empathy; an ostentatious indulgence in sententious frippery at the expense of the very people it claims to speak for.

During the course of the hour (it feels like several), this disingenuous excretion of fringe theatre disgorges such asinine monstrosities as the Cost of Living Cow, the Propaganda Lizard, and the Britney Spears Mynah Bird on a hapless audience. And that’s only the animals—the people are no better (the solitary goday accent adopted by the government soldier is cringe-worthy in its condescension); the set pieces far worse:

The bit in which a traumatised trinket trader lapses into day-mares about the bombing of his house is a literal song and dance and gigolo giggle about people on fire and dismembered limbs. The Johnny Batta waltz with lofted ‘Danger – Landmines’ signs, the caterwauling foppery set around an air-raid, the Socialist/NGO Exploitation Dance, the cricket matches… I could go on, but why bother?

What’s wrong with this Travelling Circus is its moral slackness, its shameless pretension, its horrendous reductionism. The Sri Lankan conflict is trivialised as a Civil War of Lies in which both parties are equally culpable; shirking substantive commentary, it is a spurious caricature fleshed out with Question Trees and second-rate hogwash.

In their defence, the perpetrators will no doubt espouse lofty intentions; on the company’s website, the director claims they wanted to “comment in some way on what [they feel] are the most pressing concerns in our country right now”. Oh, right. A sly sideswipe from the sidelines, the play is like some drink-sodden tripped-out spawn of Lewis Carroll and Hieronymous Bosch. Overreaching in desperation to achieve significance, it fails.

The pity of it all is that unlike the previous insult to theatre that provoked my ire, the acting in this piece is fluid and sure-footed, with sparkles of brilliance from a select few. But if we are to believe the souvenir, they deserve no defence. Apparently this shameful exercise in disaster porn was an attempt at devised theatre for which the whole cast is guilty. That leaves only one question to be asked: what the hell were they thinking?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Crying out against Ragdoll

The power of theatre sometimes, though rarely, allows one to enter an auditorium cherishing a certain set of beliefs and exit it with those beliefs shattered. If such was the purpose of Ragdoll, directed by Jerome de Silva, sponsored by Dulux, and presented by the Workshop Players from the 22nd to the 24th of May, the play was a monumental success.

I walked into the Lionel Wendt that fateful Saturday possessing—like the vast majority of humanity—an abhorrence of child abuse and a genuine sympathy for all who have suffered it. I emerged from the theatre an hour later filled with a callous indifference, all my reserves of sympathy for innocence betrayed, exhausted. I felt acute pity, certainly, but it was solely for myself.

To write about what was wrong with the play is an exercise in masochism—it requires one to reflect, to remember. Yet in the hope that this diatribe shall prevent repetition of such horrors, I shall sacrifice my present happiness to this task.

The play—if such a grim excrescence of the imagination can be called a play—begins with a little girl and her ragdoll, upon a bed, atop a platform. It is clear that all is not right from the outset—during playtime, the little girl asks the ragdoll whether he will come again.

He—we later learn that he is her stepfather—does. The little girl rushes down the platform, huddles in a corner of the stage, and, in the only moving performance of the entire night, screams and screams as he lies with her ragdoll. She goes back up after it’s all over; comforts the doll, asks if it hurts.

Rhetorically: “Was it worse than the last time?”

In unison: “It’s always worse than the last time”

And so, the preaching begins. During the course of the play, we are treated to a crude, sanctimonious miscegenation of good intentions, righteous indignation and condescension that could have been ripped straight out of an INGO textbook; in fact, probably was.

We are told that the cause of child abuse in this country is our culture. We are told that there are good people out there ready to ride to the rescue, but that Sri Lankan prudery and familial pride are at the heart of a deafening silence on the issue that only serves to perpetuate it.

“No matter how much we publicize it, the problem just doesn’t go away”, says a frustrated Good Samaritan at one point. Later, to prove it, the aging grandfather of the little girl—now grown into a do-gooder Child Psychiatrist—rails against the shame any revelation of child abuse would cause his family. It’s an insult even to clichĂ©.

Apart from the preening condescension of the script and the woeful ineptness of the direction—the ragdoll, commenting asininely, often evoked a Von Trapp child cuckooing—there was the acting. It was abysmal. Leaving aside the child actors, lest the self-righteous abuse-hounds unleash their hordes, I shall consider only the adults.

The grown up little girl was interpreted with all the subtlety and none of the charm of a bulldozer run amuck. Her fiancĂ©, clearly a hammy escapee from a Tarzan film, was even ghastlier. Her grandfather, interpreted as a stolid dullard or perhaps simply played by one, was utterly atrocious. As for the eponymous ragdoll—transforming rapidly from an extension of the subconscious mind to a full blown symptom of schizophrenia—the less said, the better.

Which brings me, finally, to the principal philosophical problem underlying Ragdoll. It takes the softest of soft targets and hammers it with a Howitzer. Its very sententiousness eviscerates sympathy, its sanctimony fosters scorn, its servility to the INGO mindset beggars belief. It is a bullying, self-righteous, obnoxious, mephitic screed that should never have been put on before the paying public. Let us hope we never see its like again.

How different, how refreshing, how wonderful it was to step into the Punchi the next night to watch the other play on the boards that weekend: Tennessee Williams’ Out Cry, directed by Namel Weeramuni, sponsored by the American Center. Though its execution had flaws, it would be churlish to cavil. The most difficult play in Williams’ oeuvre, ripe with metaphor and allegory, blurring the distinctions between fact and fiction, neurosis and sanity, reality and surrealism, it is the hardest of hard targets to aim at. Failure or success aside, the effort was noble. And this in itself, on a weekend like that, is enough.