DateLine Wednesday, 25 June 2008


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The twisted versions of Sinhabahu

When Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra scripted the legend of Sinhalese origin, Sinhabahu, into the local theatre, it made him a theatre legend.

Everything about the play was original to the sense of the lyrics being classical, costumes being traditional and, above all, the play being a masterpiece.

It was a success story throughout the years and this exceptional piece of theatrical production unlocked an easy track to an English production that came on stage not so long ago.

Dharmajith Punarjeeva is an experienced stage drama producer and had made an effort to bring the 1961 masterpiece to the present audience in English.

Ironically, it was but one day that Sinhabahu was staged in English and many critics have expressed their disappointment towards the creation. They have begun rallying against Dharmjith making life a razor’s edge for him.

At the forefront of the group is the wife of the master of the original, Lalitha Sarachchandra. The Daily News met her to question why she found Punarjeeva’s work an unsavoury experience.

“ Punarjeeva brought Dr. Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of Sinhabahu to me and requested permission to do a production. We discussed and came to an agreement to proceed with bringing the English version onto the stage.

We signed an agreement that Dr. Sarachchandra’s Nadagam tradition should not be distorted and that if the final production was not up to my satisfaction, the play will not be allowed to be released to the public,” she said.

According to Lalitha she had never possessed the wish to produce Sinhabahu in English and show it abroad, rather she believes that it is the Sinhala play itself that should be taken to the international audience.

“It is very difficult to do Nadagam in English. This was tried out as an experiment and since Punarjeeva is an upcoming young director and I believed it was my duty to relay on his capabilities to bring the English version into life,” she said adding that many had warned her against the action.

“One cannot act based purely on suspicion. Nothing is concrete until facts are proven. One of the reasons why I did not hesitate to give him my consent is because I have been accused of grabbing all of Dr. Sarachchandra’s work without giving it to youngsters. It would have been wonderful if he had made a good job of it,” she explained.

According to Sarachchandra, Punarjeeva had not understood the characters in the play. She says that Suppadevi had been transformed to take the image of a bandit queen.

“She is the mother of our nation. She is the emblem of the Sinhala woman and we have a great regard for her.

In Punarjeeva’s English version Anoma Jinadari, dressed in a short costume, is scurrying about on stage, giving the impression that she is more in a hurry to leave the cave than Sinhabahu. Her actions do not indicate that she is a respectable women and the mother of two children,” Lalitha said.

Lalitha Sarachchandra. Picture by
Saman Sri Wedage

One of the significant differences between the original and the English version is in the scene when Sinhabahu kills his father. In Sarachchandra’s version the first two arrows that the son shoots do not harm the father.

It is only after he feels anger towards the son that the third arrow strikes him dead. In the English version this scene had been changed to the son deceiving the father and stabbing him with a dagger.

“Sarachchandra’s Sinhabahu is based on the theme of compassion but with this single scene the whole idea behind the play is destroyed,” She pointed out adding that as soon as she had watched its premier, she had gone up to him and expressed her displeasure.

“I asked him to meet me but he never turned up. We had to go to courts to stop the next show that was scheduled to be shown in Kandy. He had no choice but to show up then and now the play is under arbitration.”

Another issue in concern is that all the music and songs have been recorded and played backstage.

“Though Anoma acts on stage it is Noeline Honter’s voice we hear and the dialogues are very unclear. You cannot make out what is going on stage. There is so much background noise,” she said.

Queried on why she did not go to watch the rehearsals Lalitha said that she did not place trust in such matters.

“Let’s say I did go to see the rehearsals. He would have shown me a few scenes that I would have approved and he could have included all the scenes he wanted after I had given my approval.

“Many people insert scenes to their creations after showing it to the censor board. I had my suspicions and they were proven correct,” she said adding that Punarjeeva had visited her home several times after they had signed the agreement but had never discussed or asked for advice on how to proceed with the play.

“I asked him how the work was progressing but he did not give any details. He seemed to be avoiding the topic and I did not feel the urge to dig into it as the agreement states that I will have the final say in the matter,” she said.

Sinhabahu, the Sinhala version had been staged for around 47 years and had mesmerised local and international audiences. Lalitha’s wish is to script the plays in Tamil because she believes that the plays combine well with the Tamil traditions of dancing and singing.

She had already given the script of Maname to Dr. Sivathambi and hopes to engage University students representing the three nationalities to take part in the rehearsals.

English translator Prof. Lakshmi de Silva shared the same viewpoint regarding the background music of the play.

“The cast voices recorded sounds, and the recording was horrible.

“I had no way to measure whether justice is done to my script. There was no performance at all; only some unprofessional movements on the stage.”

Prof. de Silva is suspicious on any ulterior motives of the production. “I think they are going to pack this abroad after videoing. They have a good market with homesick emotional Sri Lankans staying abroad.”

As Prof. de Silva mentions, you cannot expect the English production to be in the same excellent rank as that of the original version, but the play is not even up to standard.

Namel Weeramuni, the second translator of Sinhabahu, was not willing to comment on principles.

“This is based on Prof. Lakshmi de Silva’s script, and since I have translated this too, it will be unfair if I comment on the play,” he said.

A Sinhala lecturer from Peradeniya University Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerthi pens down a positive note on Sinhabahu English production in a recent review.

“The English version was beautifully theatrical. It intermingles traditional rhythms, body movements, gestures and the like with new choreographic and musical elements. In some scenes, it creates a ritual-like atmosphere that Sarachchandra would have liked.”

However he also agrees with the general opinion of background noise. As Dr. Amarakeerthi mentions further, Prof. de Silva’s script lacks the theatrical beauty, though it is a scholastically excellent work. As he points, the audience would feel like listening to English being read on stage, rather than listening to colloquial English.

Another Sarachchandra critic, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed his grave concern about the English production.

“The first point is music, which was electronic. I am not against electronic music, but there is a manner the music can be used. This play lacks it totally. I was willing to write a review on this, but at the end, I came to know there is nothing good to mention on this play.”

He added that the whole glamour of Sinhabahu is completely lost in the production.

Daily News’ attempt to contact Dharmajith Punarjeeva was futile. His official website is also closed down.


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