Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dhawala Bheeshana breaks the silence

By Randima Attygalle

"Everything has been figured out, except how to live"- Jean-Paul Satre

Jean-Paul Satre’s globally acclaimed play, Men without Shadows is set in the backdrop of German-occupied France in 1944 and concerns the capture of five French resistors after a failed action against the Vichy-occupying forces. Interrogated and tortured, the capture also tests the morals and validates the meanings each rebel gives to his/her respective life whilst awaiting a cruel ending to it. Sixteen-year-old Francois, the youngest captive yearns to liberate himself and live life again. So does his sister Lucie despite hearing bugle calls of death. No sooner Lucie and Henri, the other captive fantasize a life amidst flowing brooks, buzzing of bees and laughing children, three bullets annihilate them (together with Canoris), denying them of life and Satre’s play is conceived in that shock, sharing the same with the audience. Through out the play Satre’s philosophic musing- "the meaning of man’s life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged, man has to make the meaning himself, has to commit himself to a role in this world, has to commit his freedom," is reverberated.

An acclaimed production

"Jean-Paul Satre wrote Men without Shadows in the aftermath of the victorious Resistance Movement in France, yet he didn’t write about the victory, but about his philosophy of-existentialism," says veteran dramatist Dharmasiri Bandaranayake whose adaptation of Men Without Shadows- Dhawala Bheeshana, first staged in 1988, came among the local audience once more at the Lionel Wendt last week, breaking a silence of 12 years since its last production in 2000. First staged in a socio-political set up ridden in violence and terror in the country, Dhawala Bheeshana was nevertheless highly acclaimed, securing nine coveted awards at the State Drama Festival of 1990, including the Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Lighting.

With the exception of the senior artiste W. Jayasiri who has been portraying the role of Landrieu since the play’s maiden performance, this year’s new production of Dhawala Bheeshana launched several new artistes, including Jehan Sri Kantha (Henri), Oshadie Gunasekera (Lucie), Ishara Wickramasinghe (Francois), Susanga Kahandawalaarachchi (Sorbier), Jagath Chandralal (Canoris) Nigel Raymond (Jean) Arunod Wijesinghe (Pellerin), Charith Senanayake (Clochet) Sunimal Perera, Samitha Amarasinghe and Kosala Lakshitha as soldiers who did justice to the play. It once more enticed the audience to engage in a stimulating theatrical dialogue.

How challenging was it to the dramatist to inculcate the ‘experience of a time gone by’ in a new generation? "I never expected the new cast to ape the artistes of the original production including Jackson Anthony, Kaushalya Fernando and Daya Alwis who played the roles of Henri, Lucie and Clochet respectively. However, I strongly advocated the importance of respecting the experience of history. Although Satre’s social fabric was different to the trials of Lankan society, we can certainly find common grounds in the philosophy in which the play was conceived. We cannot close chapters of history as easily as closing files. If one is pro-war, one cannot validate Trojan Women, similarly Men without Shadows cannot be justified if you cannot identify with the concept," replies Bandaranayake.

As the dramatist recalls, the encounter with the LTTE troupes in Mankulam in 1987, first sowed the seeds of the theatrical effort of Dhawala Bheeshana. Bandaranayake and his group traveling to Jaffna for a documentary film, were stranded in Mankulam, their vehicle robbed by the LTTE. "The mortal fear which engulfed all of us and myriad human emotions experienced, brought the reality of Satre’s play closer than ever before," recalls the dramatist whose request for a translation was fulfilled by Cyril C. Perera. Bandaranayake shedding light upon the aborted first attempt of a translation by the celebrated dramatist Namel Weeramuni said, "in 1972, Namel Weeramuni’s first translation of Men without Shadows could not be produced since it was banned by the then SLFP regime. I remember reading the script as the young actor chosen by Namel to play the role of Francois, the youngest captive!"

Myriad interpretations

The first staging of Dhawala Bheeshana took place in 1988, the timing of which was ‘alarmingly coincidental’ with the insurgency as Bandaranayake points out. "The objective of my effort was not to localize the French experience but unfortunately it was applied to various political and social agendas of several agents," he adds. This application went to the extreme of Bandaranayake receiving numerous death threats, halting not only the staging of Dhawala Bheeshana by mid 1989 but compelling him to flee the country. "The expression in the play inspired by the French experience in Nazi-occupied France was given multi-faceted interpretations by various agents applying it to the contemporary violent Sri Lankan society. Lucie in the play laments witnessing exposed bodies deprived of a honourable death. This was a common experience by Lankans for whom floating bodies in waterways was an everyday sight in the late 80s. Thus, the play became highly controversial. Nevertheless, crowds flocked to see it," recalls Bandaranayake.

Universal and timeless

In 2000, Dhawala Bheeshana was once again reproduced in a social milieu different to that of the late 80s. After a lapse of 12 years, the play once more pulled crowds to the Lionel Wendt last week, holding testimony to the truth that great theatrical labours are universal and timeless. For Bandaranayake, preserving the original flavour of a play is vital. "Works of globally acclaimed playwrights are produced all over the world. For example, Men without Shadows has been produced in India with completely an Indian flavour. I personally believe that localizing such a play largely diminished the dialogue it seeks to create," opines the dramatist. Answering the often posed question, ‘what about the possibility of an original play?’ Bandaranayake replies, "after Ekadhipathi I have not done an original play. It is not that I fail to write a good script, but the fact that I’m more inspired by great dramatists," adding that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the local drama idiom is nourished only by original work. "For me, Brecht is dearer than a play of my own," he adds an after thought.

Bandaranayake who was privy to the rich theatre culture championed by Prof. Sarachchandra and Sugathapala de Silva, shares his concerns over the absence of a ‘disciplined theatre’. "There is tremendous potential in the new generation and the mastery of the veteran lies in his ability to reap that potential, adhering to the highest theatrical standards," concludes the dramatist.

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