Coterie theatre flourished briefly in the 17th century Britain as an underground resistance movement against the sociopolitical repression imposed on one of the most sublime creations of the human mind – Western theatre. Borella Punchi Theatre (PT) is the closest Sri Lankan equivalent to the British Coterie theatre, for it too was created at a time when the traditional theatre was held hostage by the sociopolitical and economic climate of the then war-torn country. While the other more traditional establishments were teetering on extinction, PT daringly facilitated a meeting point for those irrepressible theatre groups and their diehard audiences. In addition, it has offered a slightly different vista for Sri Lankan dramatists, both professional and armature, to work with which in most cases resulted in their audiences being given novel experiences. To my mind experimental theatre work found a veritable greenhouse at PT. And this is a situation that bodes very well for the future of the Sri Lankan theatre in the long run, the only prohibitive factor being the relatively high ticket prices – this being an occupational hazard of being a coterie theater, I believe.
Last week I watched Udayasiri Wikramaratne’s Pem Yuvalak Onekara Thibe (A Pair of Lovers Wanted) at PT courtesy of a friend's kindness. The drama dealt with diverse subjects such as the difference between ‘the real’ and the cinematic representation of the real; about romantic and filial love; and cinema as an industry. I must admit that I was intrigued why Wikramaratne should be staging a discussion on cinema as a craft/industry and not on the theatre. The cast did their parts admirably well, given their limitations. Music, costumes, lighting, etc., too, had pitched in and done their work creditably. A special salute should be offered to the person in charge of casting, especially for his/her selections for the lead roles. Overall, the drama was a success. However, as good as it was, I felt that there was something ‘off’ about the whole thing, not glaringly obvious, but nevertheless there, niggling at the very edge of one’s consciousness preventing the experience from being one of greater satisfaction. It took a while for me to figure out what was ‘off’ about it: Pem Yuvalak Onekara Thibe was a drama clearly meant for the big stage. And had I been lucky enough to watch it being performed on a more regular stage my views on it would have been nothing but positive.
Performing on a larger theatre with the capacity to seat a couple of thousands and performing on a stage of much smaller scale such as the one on which Pem Yuvalak Onekara Thibe was performed at PT are not the same. Space, both literal and figurative, either offers or withholds possibilities. In that sense space is the very meat of a dramatic work with which the innovative dramatist experiments in the course of the making of a play. The entire production has to be fine-tuned to meet the specific traditions and explore the possibilities offered or withheld by the space of the venue in which a play is to be performed. Of course, there are exceptions who routinely ‘bend’ theatrical space to serve his/her purpose, and do it resoundingly well, too. I remember watching a performance of Vikurthi being played on a cramped school stage – the very crampedness of the stage (albeit unintentionally?) adding much to the overall theme of the play. However, in general, when it comes to a setting such as a coterie theater such as PT, the proximity between the actors and the audience gives the dramatist a rare opportunity to be on more intimate terms with his/her audience by using a more natural speaking voice, less makeup, more nuanced facial expressions and body language as well as a greater degree of back and forth between the stage and the audience. Had the director and most of the cast (the two leads seemed to have a greater awareness of the ‘limitations’ of their venue than the rest of the cast) of Pem Yuvalak Onekara Thibe recognized and responded to the requirements of the opportunity offered by their scaled down setting, it would have enhanced the audience’s satisfaction significantly. The so-called minor roles must understand that it is not necessary to overdo one’s role to make an impact on the audience. We do have cinema actors receiving awards for a single appearance in which he utters only one word for which he earns an award, after all.
In addition, Menandrian comic scoops offered mainly by the supporting cast that would have been acceptable and even expected on a larger stage which usually catered to a more mixed audience looked slightly overdone there at PT with the going rate of a ticket at Rs. 750 per capita. One’s willingness to part with a greenback or two and a couple of hours from the time that should have been spend with one’s loved ones in order to watch a drama at difficult times like these must be given due recognition. And such aficionados being a rare species must be cultivated with due respect. Of course one might argue that dramas could survive as text without an audience and quote examples in support. But that is beside the point. So, going back to the issue of rib-ticklers, I came up with three possibilities for why the director should insist on these Menandrian routines in this drama which could have done very well, in fact, better, without them, especially at a venue like PT:
1. The director/script writer thinks that his audience does not have the capacity to absorb a straight dose of what he has to say; therefore, it needs to be diluted for it to go down the collective throats of his fans easily – ergo, a few porter’s scenes thrown in with the heavy stuff
2. The director/script writer is unsure of his own ability to retain the audience’s attention focused on the chosen subject matter without the help of some breathing spaces in between the heavy scenes
3. The director/script writer is restricted by an accepted formula which he is unwilling to outgrow
All three reasons, if they happen to have something truth in them, tie this promising drama down and prevent it from reaching its full wingspan. Finally it must be stated that, none of the technical hitches listed above impairs beyond repair one’s ability to enjoy this rare theatrical treat which passes under the very deceptively unassuming title Pem Yuvalak Onekara Thibe.