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Asinamaali Dreams of an escape

The magic of the proscenium theatre is that it is a ‘place’ defined in its ‘spatial dimensions’ yet able to create ‘domains’ through ‘expressions’ that transcend parameters of chronology and geography. Tales of myth and legend to topics hot in the news, the theatre is a space where the communication desired by the artist to his audience is channelled through the medium of ‘live performance’.

On December 24 seated in the gentle darkness of the Punchi Theatre in Colombo I watched a Sinhala rendition of the South African play Asinamaali by Mbogani Negma, adapted and directed for the Sri Lankan theatregoer by Pujitha de Mel who must be commended for putting on a praiseworthy production which had in its cast, Priyankara Ratnayake, Dharmapriya Dias, Vishwajith Gunasekera, Sanjaya Hettiarachchi and Nishanka Madularachchi.

It can be appreciably noted for its success as an adaptation which presents the socio-political and cultural landscape the original work represents, and in fact seeks to communicate while having a distinct closeness to the local audience through the Sinhala language.

Idiomatic language and colloquy

Overdoing the thrust for connectivity and going overboard with zeal to make it appeal to our lingual form, a translator could be driven to ‘localise’ the stylistics of speech and dialogue to an extent that the story almost seems like it was one that happened in Sri Lanka when paying attention to idioms and colloquy that colour the diction of the characters.

Yet there can be some noticeable incongruousness when a ‘pristine’ Sinhala speech pattern comes out of characters who communicate of places, names, and incidents that are utterly unrelated and far removed from our own milieu and claim to represent another culture.

The translated script of Asinamaali has successfully blended these different ‘interests’ from my observations of the performance, since I did not distinctly recall dialogues peppered with Sinhala idioms or metaphoric expression to the extent that makes the Sinhala translation and the English text of the play that would undoubtedly show discrepancies that would raise concerns in terms of ‘transliteration integrity’, on the part of the ‘adaptor’.

There was colloquialism in the form of certain contemporary slang and expletives at times which due to the right timing and context made it function as very direct expressions of the ‘emotion content’ contained in that character and the moment as opposed to a larger cultural connotation or culture specific idiom that would conjure an image that posits the essence of the communication to be strictly limited to our local sensibilities.

An example to this effect from the English language would be the saying –‘Carrying coals to Newcastle’ if used to express a Sinhala consciousness. This turn of phrase while known for its worth as idiomatic language rooted in the English ‘landscape’ would seem an oddity if included as a ‘direct translation’ in the course of a typical Sinhala dialogue. The same could be said in reverse, when gauging a scenario from another country represented as a translation through the Sinhala language.

Code mixing and code switching

The verbal element of the performance did not render the play a purely monolingual Sinhala drama. The dose of mixing words from two or more languages which gets classified as ‘code mixing’ and ‘code switching’ (as it is called in linguistics), had a healthy degree to it which made it realistic and lively, and not overdone.

‘Code mixing’ which can be basically described as where a speaker inserts a word here and there from another language in the course of speech that may include references or simple expressions or exclamations such as ‘My god!’. A common example from everyday life would be when English words like ‘cool drink’ ‘car park’ ‘telephone call’ are used instead of their proper Sinhala equivalents, but the bulk of diction and grammatical structure would be Sinhala. ‘Code switching’ on the other hand would be where the speaker in the course of the same speech would seamlessly switch from one language to another.

Looking at the nature of the dialogue in terms of a translated script, without reading it in terms of the ‘function’ of a certain role, the instances of ‘code switching’ could be seen in relation to where white Afrikaner personae are portrayed, and ‘code mixing’ was seen in the dialogues of non white characters.


Pujitha de Mel

Therefore, in observing this in relation to the very performance I watched, ‘code switching’ was assigned mostly to the actors Gunasekera and Ratnayake, the former of the two brilliantly delivering a slightly Afrikaans accented English that is characteristic of white South Africans, which materialised when he portrayed a judge.

At certain instances a touch of contemporary Sinhala colloquialism was detectable in the manner where either the character or the intensity of the moment validated it to generate appeal to a contemporary audience.

Instances of ‘code mixing’ such as using the English word ‘shape’ in the typical contemporary manner of “shape, shape”’ in the modern urban sense of its usage amongst Sinhala speakers to urge someone to calm down was very notable and can be appreciated for being appropriate where such ‘lingual realities’ in contemporary Sri Lankan speech patterns are existent.

Speech elements as that further do not in my understanding subvert the entire cultural ethos of the original setting of the play as much as exclusively Sinhala idioms would have.

‘African inclusions’

On the matter of ‘the fabric of language’ in the play, when looking at its lingual composites as to what was conveyed as both spoken dialogue and song elements, the performance had a mix of Sinhala, English and also an African dialect.

The use of words from an African language is no small factor in this work of theatre albeit in near negligible quantities. Unlike in a book where the reader may be offered the meaning in footnotes or a glossarial back note, theatre cannot afford such ‘reference material’ bound to the work unfolding on stage.

The inclusion of words from an African dialect certainly enhanced the texture of the play as a translation or adaptation, of a play by a South African playwright and nuanced to the Sri Lankan viewer the ‘feel’ of a foreign culture. But in a live performance how does a viewer decipher the meaning of words which are unfamiliar to him and digest the narrative without gaping blanks getting imprinted on the viewer’s flow of comprehension?

When Priyankara Ratnayake began using the word Baabaa as a form of address to an inquiring officer cross-examining him, and the consistency of that word as one used to address a person of superior stature posited its function clearly.

But then one could raise a point of critical argument as to why the translator didn’t use the Sinhala term Mahaththya or the English word ‘Sir’ which is all too familiarised to the degree of now being a word of ‘modern Sinhala’? Wouldn’t these words be more easily understood by our local audience and flow more harmoniously with the Sinhala language framework of the translated script?

An argument as that would have its valid basis no doubt, but it can be counterproductive as well. An ‘identity marker’ in terms of lingual elements in that performance as a play which portrays the plight of oppressed black South Africans came out through that unfamiliar ‘Baabaa’ uttered in servility, fear and submission, and was a marker that established in respect of terms of address, the status quo in place between the blacks and whites.

Had that word been supplanted in the translation with a more locally attuned substitute as mentioned afore, much of the effect that gets generated of the socio-cultural environs the story ‘was hatched in’ would have been diluted.

Other inclusions of African words came laced as rhythmic threading to Sinhala lyrics, as small choruses to songs that formed part of the narrative. In this regard the production was well conceived as to what would be used as an intelligible word that transpires as a functional word in the scheme of dialogue and what would serve the purpose of a decorative ‘sound element’ which generates the African cultural facet in the narrative outside the ‘dialogic devices’.

Tribal dance

The five inmates did at times erupt into collective tribal dance like expression that was very much a non-verbal means to express their inner being and worked in certain ways as communication of their restive nature as prisoners who longed to be free.

This was clearly a performance that demanded much physical exertion from the players. The players in giving ‘voice and motion’ to the characters, collectively brought to life on stage, displays of an impressive prowess in ‘athleticism’, so to say, that no doubt was decisive in propelling both the menace and hilarity which swept over the audience.

The social and cultural context of the story’s setting seemed to have needed a rather exceptional degree of expression though the means of body movement as almost a subtext; which was a factor that added much to the theatricality of the nonverbal narrative aspect of the performance.

The level of agility for acrobatics especially in Dharmapriya Dias added a dimension of dynamism to his characterisation that made his persona, at certain climatic moments, to be somewhat ‘larger than life’, more as a physical entity who through the rhythms of his body’s motions, shot to sudden ‘crescendos’.

Gunasekera’s talents

The mercurial way in which Vishwajith Gunasekera moved in his characterisation of various roles such as an apartheid Afrikaner judge, a jailer, and various other figures, while reverting effortlessly back to the position of his original form of a hapless black African inmate beleaguered by a stammer as each ‘enactment’ faded showed the superlative talent he possess as an actor and deserves applause and salutations.

While the performance was an overall success in terms of the techniques devised as stagecraft and the acting delivered by the five players on stage, I feel it is not unfair to point out that the three veterans in the cast Gunasekera, Ratnayake, and Dias clearly were on a noticeably higher level of skill than Sanjaya Hettiarachchi and Nishanka Madularachchi. I wouldn’t go far to say that the casting was unsound but the level of acting skill that came out wasn’t on a common wave length. However, this factor cannot be said to discredit the overall worth of the performance.

Asinamaali is the name of a rebel leader we are told by the character portrayed by Priyankara Ratnayake, of whom he is a follower. It was involvement in rebel dissidence to the white authorities that lands him in jail. However, the reference to Asinamaali doesn’t become the centre around which the whole story revolves.

Asinamaali in that sense isn’t an eponymous character. Apart from being spoken of and referred to, he isn’t a character in the performance at all.

Significance

The significance of this rebel leader as a figure whose name is the very title of the work, is I feel, in the fact that the name Asinamaali represents a symbol of freedom and hope for the oppressed and incarcerated. Enmity towards the white oppressor is a common sentiment the inmates share though they aren’t all bound by a common ideological stance.

The reasons for their convictions are different. And rather surprisingly some of them do assert that level of difference from one another on the basis of the wrong committed. But they are the same in respect of the aspiration they have –to be released from jail.

A prison without walls

I do, however, feel that one of the questions nuanced through the larger picture is whether being let out of jail is a real freedom for any of them since the position they occupy in their own land is that of the oppressed black man.

How big a prison are those five black South Africans really in? Is the ‘prison cell’ depicted on that stage really the physical parameters of the ‘imprisonment’ the black South Africans faced under the apartheid laws? Despite the fact that the five cellmates acted out scenes that recreated scenarios set in courthouses to pig farms to government offices to train stations and streets and factories in the big city of Durban, nowhere was the common black African man accorded dignity and respect.

A prison can become a place where the convicted lose their right to assert themselves as humans. The prison institutionalises a human who is convicted of wrongdoing to be nothing more than a uniform and number in the eyes of the administration.

The play brings that argument out very overtly. This effacement of their human worth in the eyes of the controller, the oppressor –the white man, wasn’t merely restricted to prison inmates in apartheid South Africa; and wasn’t only within the walls of a prison.

Perhaps all black Africans who suffered under the brutality of apartheid lived in one big prison where their human worth was sought to be eroded by the white rulers.

This is nuanced through the final moment of quietening quandary that grips the inmates as to how they should aspire to lead their lives with dignity when they are told by the faceless voice of the jail administration that comes over the loud speaker, about their premature release on grounds of good behaviour.

Symbolically speaking, could there be a colossal difference in the freedom those black African inmates will have outside the prison walls under apartheid?

Storytelling

Everyone has a story to tell, as the saying goes. But who are the ones fortunate to have their story listened to? And how much of interest will the listeners genuinely show towards such stories?

Throughout civilisation storytelling has served many purposes in a community. It is a means to transmit knowledge from one generation to another and a means of communal bonding. It is also a means of respite and escape from the tedium of reality.

And looking at the nature of the play, the highly politically charged background in which the story unfolds, the storytelling brought on stage through highly articulated stagecraft that narrates through various theatrical devices the story called Asinamaali, one may venture to say that perhaps all the above purposes would have been in mind when the playwright Mbogani Negma intended for a play as the one he wrote to be performed.

The five cellmates in that prison bring out in the performance the story that explains why they are in prison.

And that in effect is for each of them to ‘tell his story’ that led him to be there amongst his cellmates to ‘tell his story’ to them. What transpires as a result is that the audience hears ‘their story’. Their story of oppression of being born and living in a prison called apartheid from which they get no absolute release, unless, they fight against it.

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