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Sunday, 17 June 2012





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When idealisms succumb to realism(s)

The critically acclaimed Sinhala stage drama Veeraya Marila by playwright and director Rajitha Dissanayake came alive on the boards at the Lionel Wendt on Thursday June 7 to the delight of theatregoers in Colombo with the versatile artist of the stage and screen Gihan de Chickera playing the lead role.

With a cast of veterans from contemporary stage and screen such as Prasad Sooriyaarachchi, Dayadeva Edirisinghe, Gihan Fernando, Dharmapriya Dias, Sampath Jayasinghe the crowd was treated to a good performance that not just delivered potent food for thought, but also appreciable form in the execution of a work of live performance. There lies to a great extent the test of being able to craft the delivery of acting, skilfully and being ‘in the skin’ of the character, to win the appreciation and respect of a live audience where the actor has not the luxury of going for ‘takes’ as screen acting would afford.

Romancing ideals

The protagonist is a journalist named Prabath who is presented as a quintessential progressive believing in fighting the good fight to his last breath, convinced that ideals of socialist progression is possible and that he is doing his part towards that objective.

The character of Prabath comes first as a symbol of integrity and youthful idealism whose impassioned words against oppressive corporate exploitations are fiery and attractive. Yet the character may not seem all that exceptional from what is meant to be seen in such persons who believe in becoming agents for social change towards socialistic objectives and beliefs of equity and fairness. Armed with the position of being a ‘media man’, a journo, his character brings out the steadfastness of a resolute journalist who believes his duty lies more to the reader, the public, than his paymaster.

In the opening scene in what appears to be a group of police in civvies the head of which is played by Sampath Jayasinghe, a terrorist bomb attack is being investigated and the assailant’s identity is being looked into to lay the preliminary grounds to begin to ascertain the motive for the attack. A group of media men arrive to get information about the attack and the assailant. The characters of Gihan Fernando and Dharmapriya Dias who are from TV are marked with a difference in their disposition towards the police officer as well as the job of reporting as a whole.

Scenes from the play

While the two from electronic media present a vein for sensationalism, coupled with the business of spotlighting and image building of their interviewee, Prabath who is from print media and possibly of a genre less glamorous compared to TV, maintains his position of ‘investigative journalist’ and dwells into the matter though it poses discomfort to the police officer.

What occurred to me as an initial impression about the protagonist being brought to life by de Chickera was that it seemed rather underplayed and had an undertone which made his role appear less prominent in the presence of Dias and Fernando. However as the story progressed and Prabath grew as a character I saw how the possible reason for a somewhat unobtrusiveness may have been the requirement to show that the protagonist is not a glory hound and is meant to raise his voice and become dramatic for a purpose of substance.


The roles of Fernando and Dias clearly show that they are meant to be businessmen in the media and entertainment industry with little or no sense of social responsibility. The role of Prabath stands out as a lone redoubtable voice for integrity and honesty in a sector that is riddled with crass market oriented profiteering with no regard for society’s betterment.

Despite however much he is told his objectives are futile he clings on dearly to his beliefs that money isn’t everything when he is offered a lucrative position in a media corporation which of course stood for rightwing corporate dominance.

Media industry

Dissanayake through his play has created a theatrical critique from several vantages taking on some notably hard hitting themes. One of these themes is how society is becoming increasingly mediatised and depends on mass media to direct opinion generation. Prabath who comes on as a vociferous opponent of these developments, which are of course spearheaded by big business and further corporate interests, is finally made to yield when he is affected financially.

What seems rather contradictory in the character of Prabath as a ‘lefty’ is that the socialist dogma he professes belief in leads him to self defeatism because he seemed to have overlooked one very crucial factor of what is needed of a revolutionary along the lines of communism, and that is to abstain from the idea of the traditional family unit which comes with a gamut of responsibilities that ties one down to financial obligations that form the very basis for a society run according to a capitalist system.

What is revealed of Prabath latterly and his reasons to finally take up a position in the media corporation as a TV talk show host who shamelessly does product endorsement, is that leaving his job at the paper when it was taken over by the very corporation he resisted, he was rendered helpless due to lack of income to support his family.

The hapless journo therefore, had decided to' swallow his pride, scrap his values, discard his dogma and take up a job that paid him well. At that point when he is projected to the audience as a vibrant TV anchor Gihan’s theatricalising the character made a marked difference to see the change in Prabath of before. The tones and dramatics Gihan brought onto the stage seemed to aim at a more naturalistic manner than what was projected by the other players in terms of presenting the more farcical, superficial characters like the ones played by Fernando and Dias for example.


Perhaps the theatricalised Prabath is meant to bring out the superficiality and lack of sincerity or genuineness that now constitutes the transformed personality who has sold out and bears nothing within of what he used to be –a hero of sorts who refused to give into what he saw as wrongness and villainy in society by those who held power; either administrative power like the police whom he would not allow to sham the public, or economic power like the media moguls and finance barons whom he resisted and fought against.

The Black Civil Rights leader popularly known as ‘Malcolm X’ called the media ‘the most powerful force on earth’, and with the growing trends in allowing media to create heroes and villains and create opinions of what is right and wrong in society, Dissanayake’s play brings into discussion what society is at present and is possibly heading towards. The most appalling turn of events would be more than the assassination of the journo turned broadcaster Prabath on live TV is how that very station makes it a means for sensationalism and thereby takes a whole new business angle where SMS voting is also brought in to the scheme of unearthing the reasons behind the killing.

The audience laughed at these developments of the story being played out entertainingly by accomplished actors, which may show how indifferent our society itself has become about becoming more and more mediatised. It was possibly very telling of how immune we could become to a slap in the face the kind the playwright deals to both mass media and contemporary society that allows it to flourish.

Journalism and ‘journo-ism’

Although the media is thought of as a tool to inform and empower the public, one of the common perceptions of the mass media is that it is at times a mafia which abuses its power and barters its power for perks. The industrialisation of mass media, both the press and electronic media, through building on the aspects of entertainment and information being merged to create ‘infotainment’ is pronounced rather well through the role the protagonist plays at the very end as a talk show host.

With the characters played by Prasad Sooriyaarachchi and Dayadewa Edirisinghe as an erudite academic and a veteran film maker respectively, Prabath in his more theatricalised role as a broadcaster presents the ‘acquired’ or ‘adopted’ persona to suit the job.

Moving from print to electronic gives the media man a better avenue to bring out his persona to the public and can indeed be thought of as more glamorous. After all there are ‘screen stars’ but no one is yet to hear of a ‘print star’.

What seems tragic to a person like the journo Prabath is that his journalism did not allow him to be a star to better voice his concerns to the public in the form of a more live persona through electronic media; and the broadcaster he becomes certainly doesn’t have any chance to do so since he is now devoid of the mettle he possessed before and to revert to his earlier revolutionary self would mean career suicide.

His end occurs very tragically onset during a broadcast by a gunshot from an assassin, but the killing itself seemed needless since the death of the ‘Veeraya’ the hero, happened sadly at the point he sold out and became another servant to the exploitative system.

Or maybe, one may argue, the playwright believes in showing us the perils of becoming a turncoat to the leftist cause? Perhaps the coldblooded slaying was done not to silence a man who was a threat to the system as was the case in the Prabath of before, but to punish a traitor to the revolution.

Journalism as a field of work creates journalists, practitioners of journalism who would in a manner of speaking sell their work. Yet what becomes of journalism when the practitioner would opt to sell himself rather than his work?

The commodity then becomes the journo and not journalism. In the ever increasingly mediatising world of today perhaps a journo is supposed to market himself as well, and not merely his craft alone for his professional development.

And thus ‘journo-ism’ a form of marketing the practitioner of journalism may arise in tandem, to mediatise society where status becomes a saleable commodity; which hampers the credibility of a journalist and the integrity of his work as something that ought to stand for the truth and what benefits the people.

Stage space and stagecraft

The stage is a place where the playwright’s vision comes to life with colour, form and flesh. Dissanayake’s critique of mass media (and society) quite interestingly uses the very lively, up close and personally pulsating medium of theatre present a profiling of another media, television, which distances itself by virtue of being based on technology that enables viewing from a great distance.

It is interesting to think from a perspective of theorising how ‘theatre’ would be a sort of antonym to TV in terms of viewer proximity. Theatre becomes closer to a viewer’s physically realisable reality than TV. Yet television can with its host of technological advantages bring to the viewer vantages of a given moment either documented or performed, which the theatre cannot.

The capacities of TV to amplify a moment of action and intensify the effect upon the audience can be thought of as higher than theatre. The capacity of TV to reach numerically larger audiences is far wider than theatre. And it is a critique of this immensely powerful medium of mass communication that the playwright builds on a stage, on a common space, as moments altering between what is meant as moments of (the) broadcasts and moments off screen when players play their characters as they are and not as TV personae.

Thereby the stage becomes a ground on which the ‘on screen’ and ‘off screen’ politics of TV are bared as though making the audience privy to the inside (off screen) ‘drama’ of a TV station.


The inclusion of dance acts as the likes of what are found on popular TV entertainment shows deftly executed by the lead ‘entertainers’ cum ‘media men’ played by Fernando and Dias gave a sense of the screen being portrayed on stage. One could even by scrutinising these two characters in particular even raise the question of where the line could be drawn in the genre of infotainment between an entertainer and a broadcaster.

The performances of Sooriyaarachchi and Edirisinghe as guests on a talk show (moderated by the turncoat journo turned TV broadcaster) gave a sense of credible dimensionality of how such persons who are treated as eruditions and authorities on subjects of art and scholarship would give a ‘performance’ and play up to the camera when the spotlight is on them and they are projected to a viewership beyond their visibility, and thus given their moment of fame.

Commenting on the aspect of acting a noticeable factor was how de Chickera’s acting carried a marked difference in tone and feel compared to the other main figures. The theatricalism involved in building and presenting the characters had several paces and rhythms. An example is how Sooriyaarachchi’s role of Dr. Sena Mapalagama picks up its theatricality and becomes a more performed persona as he becomes more infused into the media spotlight. Yet this character doesn’t come as one whose disposition towards the others is relaxed and natural as de Chickera’s.

Comparisons in acting

Dias and Fernando make their characters pick up the theatrical pace at just the right time to show in their ‘form’ how the level of substance in their characters also change and need to be understood in terms of the dramatic and the melodramatic. The deviant, or the oddity in certain ways, to this picture is de Chickera. When fired up in moments of adversity igniting arguments over political convictions the character of Prabath becomes impassioned and dramatic.

One may even feel if the moment for performance was programmed by de Chickera since the shift happens very sharply. But then that is possibly the nature of the character he is supposed to bring to life to complete Dissanayake’s directorial vision.

In the presence of Fernando and Dias, de Chickera’s character seems somewhat eclipsed by the exuberance brought out by the duo. Between the two Gihans, Fernando is quite obviously the more seasoned actor and Dias too perhaps is more experienced than de Chickera, and possibly possessing a vein more attuned to articulate the conventional ‘theatrics’ audiences would identify as being ‘theatre’.

The radical shift in the dramatisation of the character of Prabath sprouts with the moment he ‘performs’ the role of the broadcaster who has very much shed all semblances of his former self. Perhaps this shift is meant to be symbolic as much as it is part of the acting style that a theatricalised ‘performer’ has now usurped the character of the more natural, lax persona found before. The lack of coherence or symmetry in the acting stylistics when looking at the protagonist as before and after selling out, may be what depicts the character’s ‘interiority’ to be understood by the audience from a vantage beyond dialogue, is his ‘form’; apart from the verbal content. In this regard the tone, the expressionisms carry powerful overtones to distinguish the transformation in the character of Prabath. He seems devoid of any sense of the personal but a ‘programmed performer’ whose every gesture is veritably controlled to complement the task of a conscienceless product promoting broadcaster who serves big business.

Cameos of the dead

A somewhat quirky element in the stagecraft that had been at work in the drama is when Priyankara Ratnayake walks on to the stage from the frontal steps and goes right past the broadcasting duo played by Fernando and Dias not even being noticed as if though he were invisible. Only Prabath reacts to this mysterious and unexplained intrusion onto the stage which is of course at that point the space of the TV station.

The silent man walks around at the rear area of the stage and then exits to a side and reappears only at the very end of the play when the death of Prabath is announced with empathetic ‘regret’ by the station and then instantly sensationalised.

The man, carrying a vacant gaze in his eyes says he wants to say something and is offered the chance, since the TV show has come to a point where public commentary is made part of the scheme.

Yet, his unfavourable comment is not allowed to get the due air time it seeks and what is revealed to the audience is that the character played by Ratnayake is the ghost of the man who was killed in the bomb blast that was being investigated by the police at the start of the play.

The man who was first thought to be the assailant and thereby presumed a suicide bomber, but later revealed to be a mere bystander and fallen victim to the blast.

This element of ‘magical realism’ which Dissanayake has subtly woven into the storyline gives the audience a sudden unexpected jolt. The conditions this apparition are not known to the characters on stage but the audience alone. There lies I believe how the disembodied may reach across realities; that of what is meant to be on the space of the stage and what is outside the performing reach; the reality of the audience.

Objectives unreached and ideals betrayed

The character of Prabath symbolises the tragic hero who is broken not physically but in his resolve through compelling circumstances that he cannot resist alone. He symbolises that which is romantic and admirable in idealism but may not run the full length in the face of insurmountable adversity and thus succumb to an unpalatable realism. He symbolises the hero who dies not a martyr but a traitor.

What can such individuals in the likeness of the character as Prabath actually contribute towards reaching their ideals? After all he was a journo and not an activist in the vein of a crowd activator.

He was a man whose main role was in spreading the message through the written word. In the light of assessing the likes symbolised by the character of Prabath one may question when has a writer through his craft alone been the inciter, the actuator, of true revolution of the masses; unless he takes on the role of active inciter, activator and actuator to reach the common objective and realise the ideal?

Great writers

In his authorial preface to Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler says –“ I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.” How much of a figurehead was Prabath in being a possible leader to a progressive movement? How pragmatic was he if what he was able to contribute towards realising his political beliefs was only to write and not act against the regime?

If his chief merit was to rebut pressures from the forces he despised and merely demonstrate his resolve as a lone rebel of resistance, which too finally was broken, may I dare ask the question that may seem callous but perhaps reasonable in some way –how much ‘heroism’ can he be credited to begin with?


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