December 8, 2009
We grew up hearing about this play. The legend of Dharmasiri’s work as an actor and playwright have been the stories we were weaned on as children. Eka Adhipathi emerged as a milestone in the history of political theatre in Sri Lanka – all of us who have studied theatre at any level will inevitably come across some mention of this play and the stir it created when it was first produced in 1976, with a then young Dharmasiri himself playing the title role of the military dictator. He too emerged as an exceptionally talented actor and playwright to be contended with, and with Eka Adhipathi, he made his mark. He had come to stay.
I remember seeing Trojan Kanthavo some years ago. I have vivid memories of it, of the tanks and camouflage clad, gun-toting soldiers, and of course, the women – torn, bereft, strong. And yet, in my younger age, I missed quite a lot. I remember asking my mother what modern-day soldiers were doing in an ancient Greek play. My mother said ‘I guess what they are trying to say is that war is the same – no matter when or where it happens’. When I read Trojan Women now, I can only imagine the impact that Dharmasiri’s brave new production must have had on audiences at the time. So when I started to notice the posters for Eka Adhipathi, placed - strategically or incidentally I do not know - amongst the posters of a certain real-life president, I was thrilled. I would now get to see the legendary Eka Adhipathi – now that I was older, and an actor and theatre-enthusiast in my own right.
I went to the Lionel Wendt on the 3rd of December, to watch Eka Adhipathi, with high expectations. I expected an ingenious script and an extraordinary actor. I got both.
Eka Adhipathi needs to be taken in context – written in the ‘70s, and performed in a particular comic theatrical style that combines physicality and exaggeration. Yes, it was longer than most plays that my Twitter generation is used to, and yes, it was a lot of dialogue. While some part of me thinks it might be adapted to suit contemporary audiences more, another part of me believes the point is that we need to see it as it was. It’s important for my generation to view this as it were then – it’s a historical artefact, and it needs to treated and viewed as such. To edit or adapt it may mean we damage it. To edit or adapt it may mean we are taking the easy way out. Maybe it is us the audience that needs to be more patient with good art – maybe good art deserves our time and our attention. The playing style too is a historic artefact. It’s important, I consider it a part of my education, to see this performed in the style that it was then – a style that will soon probably vanish altogether. As a student of traditional dance, I struggle with this every day: is there a way to successfully merge the traditional (or old) with the modern (or new), without compromising on the artistic integrity of the work of art?
Eka Adhipathi needs to be viewed as we view Chaplin, or Laurel and Hardy. It is a leap from the realistic and naturalistic theatre we are used to in the 21st Century – it was nearly 3 hours long, with very little action and a lot of dialogue, the actors wore exaggerated make-up that consisted of lines upon lines on their foreheads and cheeks, their entire bodies shook when they laughed, with emphasis on the up-and-down movement of the shoulders, they swept across the stage rather than walked, every movement of their arms and heads were large and each word they spoke was carefully drawn out, projected, quite unlike natural speech. It was a leap from the quiet, more thoughtful plays that win our hearts today, but it was a different sort of theatre altogether.
It was Brecht’s belief that theatre should be viewed objectively and then judged, not felt. Brecht, a life-long Marxist, wished to use his theatre to create social change. He believed that if the audience were to get too emotional, they wouldn’t be able to go away and think, and to him, clear thought was better for social change than thought that was muddled up in the complexity of human emotions. He wished to emotionally alienate his audience from the characters, allowing them to think and judge rather than feel. In this way, plays like Eka Adhipathi are successful – there were moments of deliberate discomfort, but mostly the audience laughed along at characters and plot-lines that are caricatures, yes, but also sickly realistic and familiar.
Everything about Eka Adhipathi may have been from a time past, all except that which precisely matters most – its subject. Eka Adhipathi may have been old-fashioned – but it was not outdated. It was not relevant and timely in a particularly sophisticated or specific manner, but it was both relevant and timely. Maybe the things we felt were familiar – the signature characteristics of living in a dictatorship, the constant fear, the idealistic yet clear-minded hope of those that rebel, the fact that there is precious little you can do to change it and the symptoms of any oppressor, his own constant fear, his rash disregard for the dignity of the lives of others – are not so much specific to Sri Lanka or to this particular time but more universally relevant to dictatorships. But all great art is universal. Or at least I think it needs to be. And the fact that Dharmasiri chose to stage it now, after all these years, is a talent worth commending for itself – knowing when to stage a play is as important as having a good play to stage.
Dharmasiri himself, playing the dictator was extraordinary. He is a superb comic actor, with just the right physicality and timing. That calibre of good old-fashioned comic acting that runs into farce while not over-stepping the line to become ridiculous, is something that is hard to achieve. It takes a great deal of control, and the ability to know exactly where that line lies. It takes discipline, and more than anything it takes sincerity – without control, discipline and sincerity, the performance is in danger of being ‘played for laughs’ and ends up being tiresome and terrible unfunny. This happens with comedy and farce on Colombo stages all the time. A farcical character of the proportions of the Dictator is hard to achieve, and even harder to sustain. Dharmasiri owned the stage in many of his scenes, and sustained the character consistently and brilliantly for nearly 3 hours, a feat that many young actors can learn plenty from. Rajiv Ponweera, who played Walter, the leader of the group that plans to revolt against the dictator, did justice to his great character, a clear- minded, thoughtful, quiet yet powerful young man with a vision and a calm sort of sensibility to him, in a sense, the hero of the play – and this is the highest compliment that can be paid to Rajiv. He has that rare gift of being able to project without shouting, and he speaks every word onstage with precision, deliberation and sincerity – it makes his performances potent and stirring, while not being overly dramatic or heavy-handed. The four actors who played the Dictator’s four generals were also commendable – they were funny and quick and created quirky characters who were the epitome of the ‘bumbling fools’. The wonderful thing about these actors was they did not lose the sense of comic absurdity of their roles, even when they were up to absolutely no good. They did not become evil or sinister, even when they were clearly doing evil or sinister things. There remained a stark contrast between their laughing, jolly personalities and their horrific actions - and this in fact served in making them seem even more scary than if they had played the outright villains.
What can be said in way of criticism about this production of Eka Adhipathi was that it lacked a final polish. In scenes where there were several people onstage simultaneously, the tension of certain very uncomfortable scenes was sometimes broken by minute things like actors bumping into each other, bumping into furniture, actors masking other actors, or not being in character while walking offstage. This was probably partly an indication that the Director of this play was also its leading actor – Dharmasiri probably wasn’t as active in his role as Director as he might have been had he had the leisure of having only one job to do. Sometimes, it takes one person to just sit outside and constantly watch it and shout at actors. But it was also unfortunately partly an indication of a little indiscipline on the part of the actors – maybe more alertness and awareness about other actors and your space as well as theirs and constantly sustaining characters could have helped to create more tension and maintain it. Sometimes, it felt a bit like the entire thing rested on Dharmasiri’s performance and that not many of the other actors were sharing the responsibility. From what I know, many of the actors appearing onstage in this production were experienced actors – the above mentioned slip-ups can be avoided easily and would have lifted the production higher.
I felt at the end of the evening like the best thing about the production was the script. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing as far as the production is concerned. The script is a work of art – it is quick, witty, sharp and in scenes terrible and sinister in its ironic sense of humour. It is in moments larger than life and in moments incredibly subtle and nuanced. It shifts between the hilarious lines of characters such as the Dictator, and Lawrence, a fellow military dictator and friend to The Dictator - and the quiet, deliberate and moving ideas of Walter – spoken with care and certainty, and Antonio’s grandfather – a broken old man who doesn’t care for the idealism of politics, torn only by the suffering it brings upon innocent people like himself. It shifts between the loud arrogance of the Dictator, his son and minions, and the sophistication and erudition of thought in Walter and his wife Olga. It makes these shifts, which would have seemed sudden and inconsistent in the hands of a lesser writer, bravely and boldly without a moment’s hesitation and justifies it with strong and steady characters.
By virtue of being a good play, it still stands out as a great achievement. And it deserves to be seen everywhere in Sri Lanka.
The million-dollar question of who it’s about – well, that’s up to interpretation.