Namel: a trailblazer in local theatre
French playwright Jean Anouilh’s stage play Colombe, translated
and directed by Namel Weeramuni as Nattukkari, is scheduled to tread the
boards the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre on August 13, 14, 15 and 16 at
It was first staged in February 1970 at Havelock Town Theatre, now
known as Lumbini, with a cast comprising Somalatha Subasinghe, Upali
Attanayake, Dhamma Jagoda, Namel Weeramuni, Wickrema Bogoda, Prema
Ganegoda, Malini Weramuni and Wimal Kumar de Costa among others. Later
in 1976 October it was produced in London at Commonwealth Centre Theatre
and Bernard Shaw Theatre at West End, with a change of cast.
Scenes from Nattukkari staged during the 1970s
The come back of the drama, produced by Namel-Malini Punchi Theatre,
will be of yet another new cast and Namel Weeramuni shared with the
Daily News his commendations and grievances of the present day Sri
Lankan theatre. The show in London had been the first time ever a full
length Lankan play had been done there.
“It is very unfortunate that people write about poetry, novels and
short stories but no one writes about scripts,” Namel lamented, with the
published Sinhala translation of Nattukkari in hand.
“Scripts must be encouraged because then only will people start
He has been addicted to the theatre for the last 52 years, beginning
with acting in Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra’s play Rattaran and making
quite a number of plays in the sixties. He is a product of the
University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and had as his contemporaries
personalities such as D.B. Peiris, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, J.B.
Dissanayake, Wickrema Weerasuriya, Mervin De Silva and Phillip Cooray.
Namel moved on to graduate from Law College as an advocate and joined
the Legal Draftsmen’s Department. A trip to Canada in 1973 on a three
month scholarship and the subsequent delay in coming back due to an
attempt to get his leave extended to stay in Washington and later in
London had him deemed as vacating his post.
“I decided to stay in London,” said Namel. “At that time, we had to
get permission from the prime Minister to live abroad. I started doing
odd jobs such as filling up shelves in supermarkets and working as a
Later, he approached the Law Society in London and was exempted in
all exam papers except one.
“But I needed to go through three years training as a clerk. I joined
another Sri Lankan lawyer and worked as a solicitor. I had a lucrative
practice with 41 people working for me.” He returned to Sri Lanka in
Namel did his Master degree program in theatre at the California
State University and topped his batch, passing the nine papers he had to
face with honours. His doctorate program, also in theatre, was done in
“Since 1959, I have been involved in theatre, acting, producing and
directing my own plays and acting in other people’s plays.” His English
translation of Prof. Sarathchandra’s Sinhabahu was staged in the States
with an entirely American cast. It won a State Literary award for a
Sinhala to English translation in 2000.
“When Nattukkari was staged in Ladies College Hall, the whole
parliament was invited by Sam Wijesinghe to see the play and then prime
minister Dudley Senanayake and Governor General William Gopallawa were
among the audience.” Such political patronage is not there now, points
His play Wansakkarayo, translation of Anouilh’s ‘Ardale’, produced in
1959 before he left the country, won the award for the best production
at the Theatre Festival conducted by the Cultural department. While in
University, he had produced Golu Birinda, an adaptation of Pro. Wimal
Dissanayake who was one year junior to him. With Malini Weearamuni, he
also produced an English Translation of Darmasena Pathiraja’s Kora saha
Andaya (The Lame and the Blind).
Nattukkari, which is about a famous actress Alexandra, is believed to
be the life of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
“The play is about how an actress used to dominate theatre at that
time. She was an actress who commanded an entire nation with respect and
power. This is the situation in Sri Lanka too, due to television,” says
“When a play needs to be organized outstation, people want to know
who the actors are. There was a time when people came to a play whoever
the actors were. This is a menace created by television. People have
been tuned into a world of fantasy like stars chosen in various TV
channels.” He says that these stars charge a pay higher than even
Amaradeva and this ironical situation is only prevalent in Sri Lanka.
“The appreciative power of the general masses has been reduced. Due
to television, people from the great tradition have been brought down to
the little tradition. There are shallow jokes and filthy language too. I
believe there must be serious theatre here.”
In the new production of Nattukkari, the entire cast is drawn from TV
and film stars.
“They are very popular. The people who went from stage are doing well
in TV or film. People who are straight from TV are not that good because
they don’t have the training.” Namel also points out that people who act
in plays now want to join the TV and as such, the theatre is suffering.
“They need to become famous over night. I have told them not go after
publicity. Let publicity comes to you. We have lost a lot of potential
in the theatre.” He says that the sixties and seventies were the golden
era of theatre in Sri Lanka with the Bandaranaike government opening up
a cultural change in 1956 and personalities such as Dayananda
Gunewardena, Henry Jayasena, Gunasena Galappaththi, Dhamma Jagoda and
Namel himself entering the arena.
“Their plays are the plays that are still running.” But there is a
younger generation too that has come up, with names like Rajitha
Dissanayake, Thumindu Dodantenna, Buddika Damayantha and Indika
Fernandus keeping the theatre going. “Because of war, people became
glued to the TV,” he says. “The quality of theatre has gone down. There
are plays which come out as comedies but are weak and of low taste with
four letter words of double meaning. They have changed the appreciative
power of audiences.”
He acknowledges that there is a powerful English theatre in Sri
“Now it is the English theatre in Sri Lanka that is surviving. In
order to change that, we need to expand out audiences without which we
cannot survive as an art form. Theatre needs to become an industry like
the music industry. When a play is shown, there isn’t adequate
discussion taking place of its merits and demerits. But our President
gives an ear as he is a practical man.” Namel also comments that
although theatre is a school subject from the seventh standard up to
Advanced Level and all the Universities have drama courses, students do
not go to see plays.
“They teach music and dancing which is not drama. After returning
from the States, I went to the Art Faculty in Horana which has theatre
as one of its subjects and asked the students what plays they had seen.
One girl said she had seen three, Maname, Sinhabahu and Nari Bena.
Another girl had seen two and yet another one. All the rest had never
seen a play.
They pass out as graduates in theatre arts but what are they going to
teach? They have to see not only the literary aspect, but also the
practical aspect which is what we call theatre. This is not about going
on stage and reading lines. You have to enact them, give life and
meaning to the lines which is what we call theatricality.
You must hold the attention of your audiences and not bore them. The
students must see plays and distinguish what is good from bad. A
comparison must be there for you to understand scripts and develop taste
or appreciative power. There must be critical analysis of plays,” he