Some Comments on
Namel Weeramuni’s revival of  Nattukkari
(Jean Anouilh’s Colombe) at The Punchi

I have often referred in these columns to the continuing wonderful cultural fare we benefit from thanks to Malini and Namel Weeramuni’s generosity of spirit. The Punchi Theatre the Weeramunis founded and the literary activities it hosts are unfailing delights to our THIRSTY AND bruised souls. Film screenings, literary seminars, writing workshops and dramas that educate and entertain us are regularly on offer at The Punchi. Its most recent offering is a revival of an old theatrical gem—Namel Weeramuni’s translation and production of Jean Anouilh’s Colombe.

First staged in Sri Lanka in February 1970 at The Lumbini, Nattukkari was a major success. "Theatre at its best … It is the best theatre event in a long time. Namel Weeramuni’s translation is excellent … The language is earthy and racy and totally Sinhala in idiom," observed Nihal Ratnaike, a leading literary critic of the time. Sita Jayawardane writing in the now defunct The Times of Ceylon was equally affirming:

Extremely clever and amusing play in the original … It was really a moving theatrical experience …

The capacity audience … filled the theatre with rocking laughter.

The stellar cast included Somalatha Subasinghe, Upali Atthanayake, Dhamma Jagoda, Namel And Malini Weeramuni, Wickrema Bogoda, Prema Ganegoda, Wimal Kumar de Costa, Cyril Wickremage, Lionel Fernando, W. Jayasiri and Daya Tennekoon among others.

Nattukkari was also staged in October 1976 and this time at the theatre at the Commonwealth Institute in London and at the Bernard Shaw Theatre in that city’s famed West End. Tony Ranasinghe, Douglas Ranasinghe, Edmund Jayasinghe, among others, were the newcomers to the cast at that time.

In the latest version of Nattukkari, we find Malini Weeramuni in the lead role of Madam Alexandra, an ageing prima donna around whose imposing personality the entire play revolves. Malini’s initial entry into the stage was as dramatic as the roles she has since played! Unlike Namel who began his career in the theatre as an undergraduate playing the lead role as the son in Prof.Sarachchandra’s Rattharang (1959) in which Somalatha Subasinghe played the role of the mother, Malini’s didn’t begin until 1964. Having married Namel in 1963, Malini used to help out behind the scenes in all of Namel’s forays into the theatre. Ranjini Obeyesekere had suggested to Namel Weeramuni that he take a look at Wimal Dissanayake’s and Basil Mendis’ adaptation of Anatole France’s The Man Who Married the Dumb Wife titled Golu Birinde. Ranjini’s URGING did act originally as the spur that prick’d the sides of Namel’s intent, but given the fact that Namel found Golu Birinde to be a superb piece of creative re-construction, he needed no further prodding. He threw himself excitedly and enthusiastically into a production of the play and soon enough he and his crew were out playing Golu Birinde. During a school (matinee) show of the play in Kalutara, as is wont to happen in the life of any theatre director , Namel was confronted by a major crisis a couple of hours or so before the performance was scheduled to go on the boards. Rita Perera, the actress down to play the role of the dumb wife, was ill and unable to carry out her duties. Malini who was by now several months pregnant with their soon-to-be born daughter, then volunteered to step into the breach as she had helped Rita Perera with her lines and was quite familiar with the role of the dumb wife. After a little hesitation and soul searching about the wisdom of going for broke given Malini’s delicate state of health, Namel agreed to let Malini have a go, his resistance being overcome by the persistence of Malini and the rest of the crew. So began the career of Malini Weeramuni and those of us who have watched spellbound MALINI WEAVE MAGIC on the stage over the years are grateful that circumstances unforeseen brought her on stage many moons ago.

The role of Madam Alexandra we gather is based on that of Sarah Bernhardt(1844- 1923), that legendary French actress who has been referred to as ‘the most famous actress in the history of the world’ , a prima donna of prima donnas! Madam Alexandra’s character is the pivot around which the play revolves and hence the actress playing the role has to be sure-footed and domineering. Malini Weeramuni played Madam Alexandra the other night with verve and aplomb. Her poise, carriage, diction and portrayal of varying moods and emotion in the course of Nattukkari were superb. Her acting as that of Namel’s whenever he himself is on stage (instead of behind it as a director as is the case increasingly nowadays) should serve as a model for younger and budding actors and actresses to follow.

The character of Julian, the lead male role in the play, is a complex one. In order for us to understand this character and indeed the play Colombe(1950), we need to know something about Jean Anouilh, his background and the background of mid-20th century European drama. Jean Marie Lucien Pierre Anouilh was born in 1910 and died in 1987. A prolific French playwright, whose work ranged from high drama to absurdist farce, Anouilh’s career spanned over five decades. Jean Giraudoux(1882-1944) was a defining influence on the young Anouilh and Giraudoux’s play Siegfried(1828) which Anouilh saw at age eighteen is said to have determined his eventual career.

His father was a tailor and Anouilh has maintained that he inherited his craftsmanship from his father. He may have owed his artistic talents to his mother who was a violinist. He enrolled as a university student of law and dropped out after about eighteen months lured by the theatre. It is recorded that he spoke more than once with wry approval of the valuable lessons he learnt about precise and careful use of language while drafting copy.

Although Anouilh cannot be linked to any particular school or trend, he partly adopted Sartre’s existentialist views and was also influenced by the way Louis Jouvet and Jean Giraudoux created theatre. Anouilh disliked publicity, and remained reclusive all his life. Often his unsuccessful protagonist, idealistic and intransigent, is in conflict with the world of compromise and corruption. Hence the characterization of Julian’s role as complex, as noted above. Anouilh’s plays are intensely personal messages and they often express his bitter-sweet relationship with the theatre. His plays are shot through with his love of the theatre as well as his grudges against actors, wives, mistresses, critics, academics, bureaucrats and others . Julian in Colombe embodies almost to perfection this aspect of Anouilh’s personality.

When we survey the early 20th century European drama, one may say that the thirties produced a theatre calling for action, the forties concentrated on the individual caught up in the action and the post-war theatre was left with all the emphasis on the individual because the action, and the need for it, had passed. If anything, the individual’s problem was now that of inaction! With no ‘good, brave causes left’ as a simple outlet for him, he is now pictured by the playwrights as a creature heavily pressed upon by family ties, by broad social forces and by a nagging sense of futility. The only positive values consistently put forward by the dramatists of the fifties like Anouilh are the individual’s own individuality (or integrity) and his relationship (or the lack of it) with other human beings. This state of things in the mid- 20th century is well captured by Bertolt Brecht in his look back on the forties when he noted:

The troubles of the mountain lie behind us,

Before us lie the troubles of the plains ( See Martin Esslin’s Brecht, A Choice of Evils, 1960).

In Nattukkari, Colombe and her husband Julian come to the theatre to ask his actress mother for help because he is going into the Army. The Mother, Madam Alexandra, gets Colombe a part in her latest play. Colombe is successful as an actress and many of the men in the company including Julian’s brother try to make love to her, some with apparent success. Julian comes home on leave after he has been told of Colombe’s unfaithfulness. He accuses her and although she admits her indiscretions, she maintains that they have nothing to do with her love for him. Indeed Julian is blamed by almost everyone in the play for being overly virtuous like a latter day Malvolio. Unlike the others in the play, however, Julian is unwilling to compromise with the truth to obtain happiness and he thus suffers acute pain of mind and heart. He is not soothed by the cynicism of Surait, the Secretary of Madam Alexandria, who tries to console him by saying all women are as unfaithful as Colombe. Nor is he comforted by his brother Paul’s admission of guilt in the seduction of Colombe and his matter of fact approach to personal relationships. And the final blow to Julian’s idealism comes from his MOTHER WHO RIDUCULES his quest for love undefiled when she tells him not to expect to get from life that which life cannot give individuals such as, for example, true and eternal love. Her parting words are:

Okay, if you don’t wish to end up a dismal failure like your father, try not to yearn for the

unattainable in life. Likewise forget as soon as you can your idea of eternal love.

(My translation)

Ever the unrepentant romantic, Julian turns a deaf ear to his mother’s seemingLY cynical advice, goes to the piano at the corner of the stage and begins to play a tune in symbolic defiance of his mother and her worldview. He is left alone to fight for his values and principles in isolation as are all ofAnouilh’s heroes .

Ruwan Wickremesinghe’s performance as Julian was convincing and authentic. It is a difficult role to play and he did more than justice to the role. Surangani Kosala as Colombe was a trifle uncertain at first but improved considerably as the play progressed. Janaka Mawella gave a spirited and lively performance as Paul, the younger brother of Julian, who is not burdened by the scruples and high principles of his brother. Anusha Dissanayake , as Madam Alexandra’s dressmaker Madam George, was tartly effervescent and a perfect foil to Julian’s high seriousnesness. Daya Tennekoon( Madam Alexandra’s much harassed secretary) and Sanat Dikkumbura( Robinet, the playwright), two experienced and seasoned long standing performers in the Sinhala theatre, distinguished themselves in their respective roles. Seneviratne Bandara(Defournette, the theatre director), Anil Wijesinghe( Largade, the actor) and Tarindu Madusanka(Lucien, the hair dresser ) were competent. On the whole the acting was quite good. The costumes were attractive and made the actors look their parts . The stage management was uniformly good and the certain hand of the director Namel Weeramuni was in evidence throughout.

The aficionados of good theatre should be grateful to Namel and Malini Weeramuni for continuing to give us food for literary thought and for keeping us entertained by their combined labours on the theatrical front at a time when serious literary endeavours are hard to come by in Sri Lanka.

(To be continued)

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