Shanaka Amarasinghe arches a single eyebrow. When the occasion calls for it, Ashini Fernando and Tehani Welgama exchange pointed looks and grin wickedly. Unfortunately, Chamath Arambewala isn’t here to join the rest of the cast but director Thushara Hettihamu volunteers to put words in his mouth. This week, I’m one on four with the actors and director of the upcoming production of ‘God of Carnage’ by French playwright Yasmina Reza. They begin by recommending you read between the lines – it’s what Reza herself suggests any actors taking on her plays should do.
The playwright has lamented in interviews that a common failing among her kind is a tendency to overwrite scripts – to put in too many words and not leave room enough for the actors to act. For the cast, ‘God of Carnage’ is so appealing simply because it offers that space to generate subtext, to use body language, to exploit the long pause. Even as they sometimes find themselves challenged by the textual leaps Reza is so fond of, they’re marvelling at how she’s left them room for the arched eyebrow or a pointed look. It’s all about the undertones, says Ashini.
The play is a democratic one, with no single character allowed to hog the limelight. Instead the group forms and reforms as the conversational battle lines shift. For Tehani – who will soon be returning to Australia to continue her studies – that was part of the reason they chose ‘God of Carnage.’ Ditto with Shanaka who hasn’t tired of Reza’s sly wit since he staged ‘Art’ with compadres Jehan Mendis and A.S.H. Smyth (the former is a producer on this show). At that time Shanaka felt ‘Art’ was made all the better for the evenness of their performances – for that production they stood , sometimes quite literally, toe to toe, on stage.
When the civilised veneer drops: Chamath, Ashini, Tehani and Shanaka.
For Ashini and Tehani this evenness manifests in how completely each of them relies on the other to set the tone and how responsive they are to each other’s performances. Tehani explains that there’s a noticeable drop in energy levels if one character doesn’t carry his or her weight – it’s so much to do with the give and take, with the one response exacerbating the next.
Eventually, having been made nearly unrecognisable by the second act, each character confesses to having just had the worst day of his or her life. They peer into the unlit basements of their own marriages, where things scuttle in the dark. They rummage around the musty attics of their psyches and reveal prejudices they thought they had long since cleared out. Of course, Reza herself has noted that her plays are more tragedies than comedies – Tehani will tell you it’s dark comedy all the way (which, along with a lot of casual profanity makes this production unsuitable for children.)
Each character has his or her own bogeyman whispering in their ears. Tehani’s character Annette feels inferior but cloaks herself in the safety her husband’s money provides. Chamath’s character Michael wants to be what his wife wants him to be but is not quite capable of sustaining the pretence. Shanaka’s character Alan, tethered to a cellphone but only until it is drowned in a vase, might be the most unpleasant, but he is also perhaps the most truthful in how he presents himself. The actor is savouring his dialogue – he enjoys Alan’s lackadaisical attitude to political correctness, the panache with which he delivers that outrageous line. What you see, is (almost) what you get. This allows him time to sit back and simply watch as the women go at each other (something that appears to suit Shanaka himself down to a t).
Though Ashini confesses to enjoying flinging Tehani’s bag across the room during one of their arguments, it wasn’t easy to abandon herself to her character. Still, she seems to have found the process liberating. It’s ironic because she sees her character Veronica as trapped in a vicious cycle of pretence – a woman intent on preserving appearances and as such worthy of relentless lampooning. A phoney is Ashini’s one word description. While she’s resolved to fling herself in to the role, Ashini says her safety line is in Thushara’s hands – he’s promised to tell her if she needs to rein it in. Until then, she’s just enjoying herself.
As a cast, they’re pretty clear that the key to understanding this play is in recognising yourself in it, to seeing your own foibles and failings playing out on stage from the relative safety of the audience. For Thushara, it’s in accepting that this play is in essence a vignette – a moment in time taken out of the stream. We know that the encounter of these four (un)civilised adults is the culmination of unseen events and will in turn birth other unforeseen moments in the future. It is only a chapter. We are in, then out, but in the middle, hopefully, we are taught something about ourselves, the lesson made more palatable by laughter.
But now to finish this interview is a little production secret, a bonus for would -be audiences. You’ll know the question soon enough but here is the answer: it came from a pipe hidden in a pillow.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 3 February, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.