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.