A marvellous mocktail of tripartite dialogue | Sunday Observer

A marvellous mocktail of tripartite dialogue

3 September, 2023

Characteristic of his craft, Udayasiri Wickramarathne has again mounted a play that plays on wordplay. His craft in theatre testifies that his prowess as a theatre practitioner rests in his skill as a playwright whose keen sense for casting drives forward a masterful convergence of a potent script and adept acting to deliver a well directed performance. On 12th of August, seated in the gentle darkness of The Punchi Theatre in Colombo I watched Wickramarathne’s Sinhala stage play ‘Harima Badu Thunka’. The title of the play, which echoes the name of a film from a bygone age of Sinhala cinema, is however completely different in its composite of ‘story’ and setting. Seeing as how the title is of a colloquial form, I suppose an English translation of the title ‘Harima Badu Thunak’ could be suggested / presented as (on the lines of) ‘A Marvellous Trio’.

Written and directed by Udayasiri Wickramarathne, ‘Harima Badu Thunak’ features the acting talents of young popular actors Ishara Wickramasinghe, Thilan Warnajith Wijesinghe and Kusal Maduranga as the ‘marvelous trio’.

The scenario in brief

The scenario is quite simple. Three friends who share a history as ‘drinking buddies’ engage in a session of intoxicated dialogue ‘embellished’ with song and dance, meandering through words across topics that range from politics to art to socio-cultural issues as well as religious and philosophical ponderings arriving at questions that investigate concerns which are existential and ontological. A simple scenario with not so simple propositions, I will venture to say.

When looking at the overall texture of the text of this work of theatre, together with its stagecraft of a minimalist and partly somewhat figuratively expressive approach, it is quite obvious that the genre is not of a realist theatre form. Ishara Wickramasinghe who plays one of the drunken trio, at times addressed members of the live orchestra; and ‘breaking the fourth wall’ is part of the narrative.

There were instances in the performance that establish what unfolds on stage as a work of metatheatre. Therefore realism in its most traditional classical western European theatrical sense, Wickramarathne presents not. But then that is largely the craft that suits the politics of a play as this, which seeks to communicate to the audience at large, that to reflect (at least a shade of) contemporary Sri Lanka on the boards is to build melodrama that blurs lines between performance and reality. When looking at the present pathetic drama that ‘the people’ allowed themselves to be systematically sunk into, on a national scale, what could be more real than to realise the ‘nonsense on stage’ is nothing so drastically far removed from the nonsense within the collective national self.

A ‘plotless’ play

At the end of the show I overheard a male voice from the right section of the second row [where yours truly was seated] remark in Sinhala: “Kathawak nahe ne?”, which can be understood to mean as ‘there is no story plot?’. This audience remark / response although was a private statement overheard, echoes what the majority nowadays want. And this remark I overheard at the end of the show when pondered on while writing this review gave more insight as to what sensibleness may be read into the opening song and dance element of ‘Harima Badu Thunak’, which in my honest opinion seemed, at first impression, to be melodramatically moronic.

The babyish buffoonery unfolded by the actors playing on lyrical meanings of children’s songs and symbols to ascribe and acquire identities to the nameless ‘marvellous trio’ onstage made me wonder if Wickramarathne had lost all sense of scripting depth into comedy and dissolved to an insipid shallowness beyond my level of tolerance. But now I do feel that element, which I found lamentable as it did not cater to my personal taste, perhaps, symbolically nuances a facet of what many in this country happen to be.

Perhaps it befits a nation of people who want lullabies sung to them while being put to bed, and ‘stories’ told to them as they are fed their meals. A people that have by and large over decades decreased in their political maturity. A status fully grasped by the politicians who run this country and their publicly undisclosed overlords. This is a play for Sri Lanka, aptly devised for ‘legal underage drinking’. To those who have watched the play, this seemingly absurd statement will make perfect sense.

The play has far too many moments of song and dance to my personal taste. Wickramarathne has worked on the ‘Sinhala bioscope element’ that speaks to the tastes of the current mass market. When looking at projecting a work to a present day Sri Lankan mass market audience, Wickramarathne delivers a dose of melodramatics that very likely appeal to their current tastes. He thus knows how to speak to the majority of his target market. He knows what sells and how to peddle it. As a senior Sinhala copywriter in the Sri Lankan advertising industry I’m sure he believes in following the credo of the man regarded as the father of advertising, David Ogilvy, who said: “We sell, or else”.

Political addictions

The types of topics that come into play in conversation over liquor, especially when a group of Sri Lankan men sit down for a drink, can be fascinating. Wickramarathne captures this essence credibly when one deducts the Sinhala bioscope antics from the performance. Pretentions can often either gain flight or get shot down when liquor becomes the fuel puts conversation in gear. And one of the key takeaways from the text of ‘Harima Badu Thunak’ is the line: “There is no brand that is more intoxicating than politics.” Party politics is in fact the biggest addiction shackling this nation.

Veteran actor of the stage and screen Dayadeva Edirisinghe once told me the ideal numerical composite for an evening of conversation over drinks, is a trio. He said dialogue should switch as exchanges between duos while active observation and listening should happen as a solo. Pairings, detachments, reattachments and passive singulars thus shift and realign as the evening progresses between the flow of words and wine. While Wickramarathne delivers the numerical composite advocated by Edirisinghe, he shows that as far as mass entertainment goes, ‘trio chatter’ can create a larger picture.

The late newspaper journalist and writer Sunil Madhava Premathilaka once said to veteran broadcaster Kinglsey Ratnayake in a TV interview that it was not liquor he got addicted to but conversation. Conversation can be intoxicating. Words can be inebriating. It is upon this human desire that Wickramarathne builds the bricks and bones of his latest play. ‘Harima Badu Thunak’ is a ‘heady mocktail’. Yes, it is not a cocktail in so many respects but a mocktail, and a potent one at that. And that being said another possible English translation for the play’s title could even be propounded as: ‘A Mocktail of Three’. Oxymoronic one may think to describe this work in such a way. But one sees at the end, after the drinking ends, that to those who are addicted to conversation, desirous to ‘get drunk on discourse’, the nature of the beverage actually matters little to none.

A ‘rightful’ Left bashing

The not so subtle leftist bashing woven in the text brings out an unravelling of the hypocrisy that belies the sweet nothings draped over Sri Lankan socialist opportunism and thus there is to my discerning a rightwing undercurrent as the ideological base of this work. Although it is by and large a call to see all Sri Lankan political parties and their helmsmen exposed and discarded, there is a strong critical tone cast upon the politics of the Sri Lankan Left, particularly for having perhaps robbed the youth of the 1970s and 1980s of their potential.

The work is a timely social critique through the medium of theatre. Wickramarathne has devised three drunks to launch his unreserved socio-political-cultural criticism at a host of people and institutions that have led the country round and round the mulberry bush and up the garden path. Both politicians and artists alike are made the subject of unapologetic criticism. However superficial and skin deep it may be, Sabeetha’s physical beauty is far more genuine than Nanda Malini’s ‘Sathye Geethaya’ [the song of truth], they declare. There is a strong and healthy vein of anti leftism in the narrative. Wickramarathne makes no bones that through this play he is making a call to undo the mental shackles of socialism that duped an entire generation of gullible Sri Lankan youth from rural backgrounds.

A generation of idealistic youth whose ardour to realise a future of both individual and national wellbeing was exploited by leftist ideologues through rhetoric and song. A generation exploited by being made to believe their dreams can be realised via the duplicitously romanticised ‘struggle of the oppressed’ against the ‘capitalist system’. Wickramarathne thus calls to undo the red manacles clasped upon a generation of former youth who were robbed of their potential by a Left that left them in the lurch.

This play also showcases a coming to terms with the bogus nationalism that was touted by ousted regimes of the recent the past that feigned Sinhala Buddhist ardour to further their true agenda of unbridled crony capitalist of the most unrelenting and despicable degree. Calling out the hypocrisy of Sri Lanka’s Left and coming to grips with the truth of the fake nationalist Right that took the majority on a ride towards Banana Republicanism, this play shows signs of being a salutary work of rightwing theatre.

A must watch ‘mocktail’

As humans we rely on words as our main form of communication. It is through words we interpret the world around us as well as ourselves. Wickramarathne’s heady theatrical mocktail displays the intoxication of words and how people can get drunk on words. It is a theatrical statement on the power of words and its indispensability to mankind as we know it.

The presence of words affirms existence. So then what do you do if you were ever to run out of words? What is then expressed in the space of the theatrical performance is symbolically potent. A wordless world devoid of light, deprived of sight. The end of human communication means the end of existence. It is by and large ‘words’ that bind us to the world of sensory perception and stimulation.

In this play mockery and buffoonery coalesce, and converge with ideological and philosophical ponderings. It is a naked satire of maladies mundanely Sri Lankan. There is no denying this is a mocktail many a Sri Lankan should partake in as a well–earned drink. To a nation of ‘big talkers’, this is a ‘drink’ not to be missed.