Praise the Lord! Theatre in Sri Lanka is slowly and surely making a comeback. The past couple of weeks have seen Sinhala theatre companies and smaller independent groups taking the incremental steps to open up the industry. With ‘Art’ being the first English theatrical show to be staged at the Lionel Wendt in just over [...]

Arts

A pleasant night out at the Wendt

English theatre returns to the stage after about a year with ‘Art’ produced by Broken Leg Theatre Company
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Praise the Lord! Theatre in Sri Lanka is slowly and surely making a comeback. The past couple of weeks have seen Sinhala theatre companies and smaller independent groups taking the incremental steps to open up the industry. With ‘Art’ being the first English theatrical show to be staged at the Lionel Wendt in just over a year, Broken Leg Theatre Company had their work cut out for them.

Three’s company: Lihan, Shanaka and Chamat. Pic by Ruvin de Silva

The process was streamlined – get your online tickets checked by an assistant, sanitise your hands, get screened, pass through a metal detector, and then sit yourself in a non-cordoned off chair. It was slightly disconcerting to see gaps between audience members as the communal aspect of theatre is one of its greatest attributes but happily, a buzz was present and the show carried itself off with aplomb.

‘Art’ a comedy written by French playwright Yasmina Reza which premiered in 1994 was later translated by Christopher Hampton. Broken Leg Theatre Co. actually staged ‘Art’ a decade ago but this time around Shanaka Amarasinghe (one of the original cast members) persuaded Steve de la Zilwa to come out of his fourteen year hiatus to direct.

The focal point of the show is an entirely white painting that features three white lines running diagonally across it. Shehan (Shanaka Amarasinghe), its buyer, is elated with his two million rupees purchase. Marc (Chamat Arambewela), his friend, less so. Ian (Lihan Mendis), the last of the trio, remains apathetic.

What ensues is lengthy dialogues and group discussions on modern art and philosophy which ultimately lead to a lot of backbiting, temper tantrums, and tears. As the play progresses, we see all three friends bring out the worst in each other – Shehan’s? pompous demeanour a cruel match for Marc’s wild opinions and non-assertive Ian an easy target of their bullying.

Beyond questions around what is considered art, the play is an examination on friendship and how it intersects with the changing nature of people. How do you remain friends with somebody whose views now oppose your own? How honest is too honest?How dependent are you on them as a means to complete your own personality? As Ian remarks by way of his therapist, ‘If I’m who I am because you are who you are, and you’re who you are because of who I am, then I’m not who I am, and you are not who you are.’Wrap your head around that.

The script, though funny and sharp, had its weak points. There’s a lot of repetitive back and forth between the characters – “He finds these colours to be touching.”, “Oh he finds these colours to be touching?”, “Yes he finds these colours touching!” – which becomes a bit tedious. Additionally, the final scene is quite anti-climactic following what would have been a better ending when *spoiler alert* Marc draws on the painting with a felt-tip.

However, the three actors successfully balanced out the play’s wit and intensity with their impeccable comic timing and command over the script.There was also a good rapport between them thanks in part to the incubatory nature of their rehearsal process (they spent four days a week living and rehearsing at the director’s house in Puttalam). A chic and minimal stage design also allowed the characters’ relationships, theories, and philosophies to play out without much distraction.

I wouldn’t say I agreed with all the directorial choices though. For instance, the appearance of a clarinetist in the show’s prologue was a nice touch but unnecessary. The characters would also frequently break the third wall, revealing their inner thoughts under a spotlight but it sometimes felt overkill to go back and forth between lighting changes.

Additionally, the script was adapted to add a more Sri Lankan flavour with references to Kusuma the maid, Flower Road art collector types etc. It’s difficult to imbue a French/English play with a Sri Lankan sensibility so slipping it in alongside mentions of Yvonne, Angela, and bridge players felt a bit incongruous.

What I mostly struggled with was investing in each character; plenty is said about who these people are and what they represent but I unfortunately had no inclination to care.? Perhaps this was due to a disconnection between actor and character but I did leave the show feeling like something was lacking.

Having said that, the play was a perfectly pleasant night out at the theatre, providing just the right dose of humour and thought provoking ideas to leave you sated. Yes, there were weak points, but as an entire production, it did a solid job. To the theatres, thespians, and their companies, oh, how we have missed you!

 

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