Thrilled thespian

In Sri Lankan theatre, Chamika Hathlahawatta sees quite a playground. Without experiments, theatre cannot strive. That urge to experiment with theatre has posted him in some far place of the journey.

His latest try-out, Raja Man Vahala, was among the chosen productions of the 19th edition of Bharath Ranga Mahotsav, a premier national theatre festival in India. The play also bagged several awards in 2016.

“We sent a DVD of the play along with an English translation of the script to the festival. But we did not hope that we would be chosen,” Hathlahawatta notes.

The play was among the 32 shortlisted plays out of 600 entries.

Raja Man Vahala can offer multiple meanings in Sinhala. ‘King, I am a slave’ is the surface meaning. The play is an experiment in storytelling mode, an ancient mode of entertainment long before the advent of sophisticated technology. Five storytellers appear on stage and would narrate three stories in different theatrical paths. Driven by the fascination of storytelling, Hathlahawatta went on to employ poor theatre as well as epic theatre on the local stage.

“The play has drawn a good response from the audience. That was much better than we expected.”

The storytellers, who make use of eight barrels on the stage, perform diverse roles including stage management, dancing, singing as well as changing costumes. This theatrical expression, though seemingly fresh to the modern audience, has been influenced by Dayananda Gunawardana’s style of theatre.

Chamika Hathlahawatta’s interest in directing stage play originates from the research he undertook for his MPhil. His research focused on studying different styles of Sri Lankan drama. Plus, his participation in various international drama festivals has sharpened a strong sense of theatre.

“We should never go on making plays in one lane. If Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra and other notable dramatists followed only one style, our drama would not have evolved and flourished. They executed many experiments. We need to take a cue from that,” Hathlahalwatta observes.

Hathlahawatta’s maiden stage play, Hyna, directed in 2004 was the beginning of his trial and error with Sri Lankan theatre. He had no hurry to come up with his own script. He notes that he was too naïve to work on a script of his own. Hathlahawatta was a final year undergraduate at the University of Kelaniya, when he employed a script based on Akira Kurasowa’s ‘One Wonderful Sunday’ (translated by Professor Ariya Rajakaruna).

“That was meant to cinema. I needed to try out how it could be adapted to suit the stage. So I came up with a script where two lovers spend a Sunday with only Rs 171.50. On the cinema script, the lovers roam in various places. On stage we created sub stages to indicate the number of places.”

In 2014, he directed Makarata based on kolam tradition.

“I think we have ignored the kolam tradition. We have been taking some parts from Kolam tradition. For Makarata, I extracted the pure kolam tradition. The hero becomes the dragon, and the dragon becomes a hero.”

Although the Sri Lankan thespians cannot look forward to an equally good audience like they had back in the sixties, Hathlahawatta nonetheless has immense faith in his forte. The competition is bigger with television, cinema and digital technology. On the other hand, the hilarious plays plague the industry.

“There is one good thing about the common hilarious plays. They encourage us to keep fingers crossed about the industry. At least the stage managers would not leave the industry, which is good. At least we have something called theatre. So we need comedies for the sake of survival,” Hathlahawatta observes.

Chamika Haththalawa teaches drama to O-L as well as A-L in addition to being a visiting lecturer at universities. He cites various professional thespians such as Vijeya Nandasiri, Sanath Wimalsiri and Jagath Chamila to indicate that theatre could serve as professionalism.

“We need comedy trend very much. It was in Greece. It was in Rome. But we need to focus on quality. We need to pay attention to the script, director and performance. Most plays are directed with the sole aim of making money. That is also needed, but we need to pay attention to quantity. For that we need a proper programme to work on,” Hathlahawatta opines.

Raja Man Vahala will be staged at the Lionel Wendt on April 1 at 7 pm.


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