Scott’s workshops were not the only innovations we were pursuing in the field of drama. After the initial programmes of dramatized readings, we had moved on to full length plays, Richard’s ‘Merchant’ and then Steve’s ‘Anarchist’, and we clearly had a pool of very talented youngsters willing to learn and put in long hours. I realized however that this gave them as much pleasure, indeed more perhaps, than it gave us and the audiences.
I should note that I was able to indulge myself too through the dramatized readings we did. In 1985 Yolande had produced the adaptation of ‘Electra’ that I had written way back in 1970. Ernest MacIntyre, the doyen then of innovative English theatre in Sri Lanka, had been impressed by the script, and was even planning a production. Meanwhile he recorded some of it for radio, with Suvimalee Karunaratne as Clytemnestra – a lady of great grace but also intensity, who is now a Buddhist nun – and this was scheduled for broadcast in April.
It was cancelled at the last minute, and we had to listen instead to music by Bert Bacharach, which I have disliked ever since. It turned out that the authorities had got cold feet, because the plot concerned a woman who had killed her husband, and then been killed in turn by her children, Electra who was determined to revenge her father, and Orestes who was less certain but who Electra ensured lived up to her image of him. Since the JVP insurrection had just broken out, some bright spark in the SLBC thought that the play was a clarion call to the youth to take up arms against the wicked Mrs Bandaranaike, who was being accused of having killed her husband.
I was deeply upset and wanted the matter taken up, but my father advised against it, saying that everyone was so neurotic and suspicious at the time, that this might well lead to my arrest. I think that the incident also contributed to his decision, though he put it down to cost as well, to send me straight on to England after I did my Advanced Levels in Madras. In those days you were allowed several stopovers on what were still standard tickets, before the days of cut-price competition with numerous restrictions on flexibility.
I lost then what I had been looking forward to, a few months of leisure as a prefect at S. Thomas’. But I gained immeasurably because, between Advanced Levels in June and having to get to Oxford in October, I travelled extensively in Europe. So I had reason perhaps to be grateful to the SLBC. But the failure to have a production of ‘Electra’ rankled, and I took advantage in 1985 of the fact that the National Library Services Board had taken on its publication as a book – only in Sri Lanka, said Richard, would public money intended to promote reading be used to send to rural schools multiple copies of an obscure Greek play, some of it in classic Greek metres – to ask Rex whether we could put on a reading.
He was a classicist too, and agreed readily. Manique Jayatilleke, whom MacIntyre had cast in 1971 as Electra, agreed to take on that part, and Yolande herself was Clytemnestra. Richard played Pylades to Ravi John’s Orestes, and captured superbly both the humour I had intended plus the sense of youth doomed by the preconceptions of others.
When we moved on to full length plays, our most sustained input came from the Belgian Rudi Corens, who had been sent out to help develop the Tower Hall Foundation, which was intended to be a sort of National Theatre. But it had been entrusted to A J Ranasinghe, who simply played politics, with no understanding of culture or social education. For him a National Theatre was simply a building, not a vibrant body of professionals, engaged in training as well as the writing and acting and sound and light and music and public performance that created a living art.
Rudi was disappointed, but he threw himself into other activities, producing and teaching in the plastic arts in which he also excelled, and having a small group he trained in theatre techniques. He also appreciated what we were doing at the Council, and offered some productions himself. These included sets of Pinter plays, in which David Woolger often starred, excelling as the nasty interrogator in ‘One for the Road’.
Rudi’s most spectacular production was however ‘The Libation Bearers’ in the version by Aeschylus of the Greek legend of Electra. We still have extant the versions also by the other two great Greek writers of tragedy, Sophocles and Euripides, while Sartre produced an existentialist version called ‘The Flies’. They all have their strengths, but the Aeschylus is perhaps the strongest, elemental in its depiction of raw emotion. I had suggested Ranmali Pathirana to play Electra, but Rudi sensibly wanted someone older. He thought Manique too idiosyncratic, and I think he and she were two strong personalities who would have grated on each other. He chose Michelle Leembruggen instead, and she worked with him faithfully and said she learned much.
Ranmali led the chorus, with Peter d’Allmeida’s wife Maria, Richard’s cousin, as her counterpart and, after much intense training, in dance and rhythm and declamation, they produced a compelling performance. Kumar Mirchandani, who had married Ranmali after I had complained about a hopeless bit actor in Richard’s ‘Merchant’ (so that Kumar was brought in to add weight, which he certainly did, carrying off the leading lady in the process), was Orestes. Sadly, given that Aeschylus worked in the days when there could only be two speaking characters on stage, Pylades, whom I had endowed with all the best lines in my version, was a cipher in this version.
Kumar has later described how after all his efforts he was outshone by Richard, in the non-speaking part of Clytemnestra’s paramour, her husband Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus. Though he did not speak, he had to die, with a cry that is generally blood-curdling. This was how Richard had played the part in rehearsal, but on the first night Kumar says he suddenly asked Kumar to punch him hard repeatedly in the stomach. Then he groaned, helplessly, animal-like, and Kumar says while striking him he realized that this is how a man responds, barely articulate, when he is helpless in death.
But, with all these superb performances, the show was stolen by Richard’s mother Manorani, brought back on stage for I think the last time. She played Clytemnestra, epitomizing dignity and passion and also a strange fellow feeling with her daughter as she falls victim to the tragic fate of her house. I had tried in my play to suggest something of her psychology – she was the sister of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, who had married Agamenon’s brother and been stolen away by Paris, which caused the Trojan War – but Manorani managed without long exposition to convey the essence of great power and great vulnerability.