Alfred House, Chanaka Amaratunga, Christopher Ponniah, Colombo, Lionel Wendt Theatre, Lucien de Zoysa, Michelle Leembruggen, Mother Courage, Richard de Zoysa, Rohan Hapugalle, SLECIC, Waiting for Godot, Winston Serasinghe
The new restaurants in Colombo were quite expensive so visiting them could be only an occasional pastime on an Asst Lecturer’s salary. The nightclubs which the bright young things of Colombo had begun to frequent were of course even more expensive, and in any case I found them loud and distastefully smoky. The mainstay of my social life then, at least as far as going out went, was the Arts Centre Club, above the Lionel Wendt Theatre, where Richard invariably turned up each night.
Though he could get quite sentimental about the lackadaisical nature of the place, where old Tissera measured out arrack as and how he pleased, he decided with a few other habitués that the place had to be made more elegant and more efficient. They claimed indeed that the Wendt survived only because Peggy Pieris sold a George Keyt painting when creditors pressed. Peggy was Keyt’s sister, and the wife of Harold Pieris, who lived next door to us in Alfred House and had been the patron of several Sri Lankan artists. He had built the theatre in memory of his friend Lionel Wendt, and it had continued for years, despite splendidly amateur management, as the most sophisticated venue in town for English plays and concerts. The Club above had been immensely daring in its time, though for some years now it had attracted very few patrons.
Rohan Hapugalle, who ran SLECIC, a new outfit that provided credit for exporters in the new export driven economy was persuaded to become the new Chairman, with Willy Pinto as Secretary. I was made Treasurer, which turned out to be no arduous task since the Club had very limited funds. My main job was to dun those who drank on credit, the most regular of these being Nedra Vittachi and Mangala Innocence, as he was then called. Mangala did not take kindly to being reminded of his debts, though he always paid promptly when asked. Nedra went one better, and decided to get over the problem of having outstanding bills by paying every day by cheque.
Those were days of heady theatre, Rohan and Christopher Ponniah in a stunning ‘Equus’, Richard’s powerful production of ‘Mother Courage’, Nedra’s own original plays, Winston Serasinghe and Lucien de Zoysa in ‘Waiting for Godot’, Michelle Leembruggen and Richard in ‘Evita’. There were lots of rivalries, but this did not preclude cooperation, and Chanaka Amaratunga managed to bring everyone together in irritation at what was seen as his pretensions, when he produced a strange Graham Greene play called ‘The Return of A J Raffles’ in between his degrees in England.
The effort to revive the club sprang I think from Richard’s memories of the sixties, when the place was full after every production, particularly in the days when the Experimental Theatre Group tried to work together with Sinhala Theatre. I had not known what went on upstairs then, when Richard as a little boy had accompanied his parents, but I certainly recalled the heady days of the synthesized Sinhala and English versions of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, when Henry Jayasena had played Azdak in both, and the production of ‘Othello’ in which the doyen of traditional dance, Chitrasena, had played the title role.
The resurrection of the Club as a centre of artistic intercourse, perhaps in every sense of the word, did not really succeed in the long term, but there were some memorable evenings. The British Council too was persuaded to play its part on occasion, ensuring that touring companies came up for drinks on the opening night of productions. We also tried to put on small scale entertainments upstairs, most memorably on Shakespeare Day. I still recall the evening when we persuaded Richard’s mother Manorani to take part and, though she lost her glasses and fussed tremendously, she held us all spellbound when she delivered Cleopatra’s farewell to Anthony. Years later we got her back on stage once more, to the British Council gardens, to play Clytemnestra in Rudi Corens’ production of ‘Electra’, opposite Richard as Aegisthus. The two of them stole the show, and it was extraordinarily moving recently to hear Kumar Mirchandani, who played Orestes, reminiscing in the BBC radio play about Richard how his own sustained performance was forgotten in the impact Richard had.
Richard also helped me with a very different sort of production, when I thought to use performance to enhance the impact of literature. I was profoundly upset at the way in which literature was taught, each poem or play or novel being studied in isolation. There was certainly lots of what was termed background poured into the students, but connecting themes, exploring similarities between characters, considering alternative interpretations, was rare.
We began then with an exploration of Romantic Poetry, in which commentary was interspersed with readings by individuals playing the poets. I set the older Romantics against the younger ones, with an old Wordsworth against his youthful self. I cannot now remember everyone who took part, but I recall Ranmali Pathirana as she then was playing a vibrant Shelley and Rohan Edrisinha a lugubrious Southey.
We used many of these youngsters also for contrasting interpretations of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, bullying Capulets transformed into anxious ones through different inflections on the same words, an exuberant Mercutio becoming melancholy, Juliet a childish victim and then a thoughtful and determined young lady.
All this however required much rehearsal, and as we grew lazier we decided that Richard could do it all himself, with one other colleague if needed. So he and Shelagh Goonewardene did contrasting readings from ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Silas Marner’, which were alternative Advanced Level texts, and – most remarkable of all – he and Yolande Abeywira interpreted Macbeth in different ways, playing all the salient parts between them. That performance we premiered at the Penideniya Teachers College, and Yolande claims that I only explained to them in the car going up what were the different emphases I wanted.
All this however was in the future, though perhaps it is worth noting here that the wheel did turn full circle. In the mid-eighties, while I was at the British Council, Richard did one man shows for us, a brilliant Dickens, a scintillating Kipling, which we toured to Kandy and Galle and even Batticaloa. But the last full length production he did for me was a ‘Merchant of Venice’ in which Ranmali played a memorable Portia. The rest of the cast was much younger, though after I had complained about a particularly silly Lancelot Gobbo he got Kumar Mirchandani – who had been Bunny in Chanaka’s production of ‘Raffles’ -to take the part, which was the beginning of that romance. On one memorable evening, and I think it was at the Wendt, Richard played the Duke, and again stole the show.