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DateLine Wednesday, 14 February 2007

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At the Berliner Ensemble

Actors: Manel and Henry Jayasena

THEATRE: Being at the Berliner Ensemble for more than two weeks was an exhilarating experience. Dick Stolt picked me up every morning at the Unter Den Linden hotel and we would proceed straight to the Brecht Archives. I would browse around there for nearly an hour and proceed to the Berliner Ensemble.

There the rehearsals started at 10 a.m. sharp. Dick and I would visit the canteen, help ourselves to a steaming hot mug of German Borsch and proceed quietly to the Berliner Ensemble auditorium.

Inside there we would choose a quiet corner and sit to watch the rehearsals. At that time they were rehearsing a new production of “The Mother” a play by Brecht based on the famous novel by Maxim Gorky.

Helena Weigel herself played the vital role of The Mother. Others in the cast included some of the best actors and actresses that the Ensemble had produced so far. They included very famous names such as Ekhard Schall, Barbera Berg and Hilmer Thate.

Ekhard Schall was one of the most athletic and talented actors of whom the Ensemble was very proud. He was known not only in Germany but all over Europe that is, wherever he travelled with the Ensemble.

I will have more to say about his breath-taking impersonation of Adolph Hitler in the Ensemble production of “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui”.

Helene Weigel arrived sharp on time for the rehearsals without any fuss. Everyone on stage rose [if they were seated] as she came in and she would greet everyone most cordially. A man by the name of Manfred Wekwerth was the Director of the new production.

Although he was reputed to be a very strict man, even he treated Helena Weigel with the utmost respect. For a man of the theatre like me, it was a pleasure to see a play taking shape during rehearsals.

“The Mother” is a very serious and most difficult play with secret trade union activity always in the background. It had to achieve that sense of secrecy, urgency and togetherness of the workers.

It is “The Mother” who helps the workers secretly a very strong and resolute figure whom everybody respects. Helena Weigel filled that role admirably. It was like an object lesson to see her deal with her demanding role. I was spellbound.

As I said earlier Helena Weigel used her extremely powerful personality and her deep resonant voice so perfectly without overdoing anything. At the end of one dramatic scene she has to say just one word- “Nein” [No!] and the way she utters that single word with so much resonance always gave me goose pimples!


I was fortunate to be invited for the Premiere night of the new production. Dick Stolt also tagged along as the interpreter. Sometimes he could be over enthusiastic and make himself a bit of a nuisance.

So I pre-warned him that I did NOT need ANY interpretation while the play was on, because I knew the play well and that he should keep absolutely quiet during the play.

He looked a little disappointed [he would have loved to explain the play to me while it was on and make himself “conspicuous”] but agreed with me with a shrug of his broad shoulders! The first night’s performance was spell binding as was expected. There was loud and long applause.

There were quite a few foreigners too who had come specially to see this performance. At that time, I did not know, neither did anyone else I believe, that this was going to be the last play that Helena Weigel was to act in. She died of a cancer a few years later.

There was a modest cast-party at the Ensemble canteen after the performance. I was invited for that too and, as usual Dick Stolt also tagged along. There was champagne and other drinks and all kinds of victuals going round.

We enjoyed ourselves to our hearts content. Madam Wiegel was gracious enough to exchange a few words with me too. She asked me how the performance was and I said it was stupendous.

She smiled her enigmatic smile and told me I should do the play in Ceylon too. She left the party early and the fun really began after her exit. There was dancing and general merriment.

Germans KNOW how to celebrate. I believe I must be the only Sri Lankan who had witnessed a premiere performance of a play at the Berliner Ensemble and also been invited to one of their cast parties!

A couple of days later I was taken to see Bertolt Brecht’s grave site. It is a very simple site with just a head stone, a few bushes of flowers and nothing very ornate. There were flowers left behind by some of the admiring visitors.

When I visited Helena Weigel the other day, I was shown a leather chair that had been Brecht’s favourite chair. It was very much like a leather chair that we see kept for sale on the way side stalls when we come down Kadugannawa. It is said that Brecht was very fond of leather chairs and also Chinese masks.

Martin Esslin mentions in his book on Brecht - “A Choice of Evils” that Brecht had a picture of a Chinese mask hanging in his study.

The mask it seems was one of extreme anger with nerves tensed up and the features distorted in anger. Brecht had written a little poem underneath the mask. I cannot trace the poem now. But it said how DIFFICULT it was to be angry and how EASY it was to be CALM!


I asked for and obtained permission to enter West Berlin too. That was the time of the famous Berlin wall. That wall was pulled down a few years ago when the two Germanys amalgamated.

Imagine a real wall dividing a city into two! One had to obtain a special visa to cross over and the procedure at the wall itself was funny if not tragic. I believe that wall would have been similar to some of our present check points in the North and the East! There WAS of course a difference between the two sides.

West Berlin was colourful, full of the latest models of cars flashing past on the roads, the shops full of all kinds of fashionable things and people moving about in colourful clothes.

Comparatively, East Berlin was dull with its grey buildings, very modest shops and cafes, with nothing put on display at the shops and far fewer people on the streets. I remember buying a Grundig tape recorder from West Berlin - that kind of “luxury” was rather rare on the Eastern side.

On the other hand, food, clothing and such things were much cheaper in East Berlin. A loaf of bread cost only five kopeks. That price had remained static as long as East Berliners could remember! The prices must have been heavily subsidized by the State.

So I spent a very pleasurable and useful two weeks or so in East Berlin and came back home to continue with Hunuwataya.

As indicated by Helena Weigel we were invited for what was called the “Brecht-Dialog” that was held in East Berlin during February next year, that is 1968. I was delighted to take Manel with me.

It was a grand ten-day event, with a formal opening ceremony followed by play performances, seminars, discussions and screenings of Brecht material and some films based on his screen scripts. I was to read a paper about the introduction of Brecht to Ceylon.

The paper prepared by me was read at the opening ceremony by Manel from the Berliner Ensemble stage. She was the only woman wearing a saree and there was a lot of attention focused on her. She did a perfect job of reading my paper and received rounds of applause.


There was a Brecht exhibition consisting of pictures from his plays, working pictures, books, posters and a whole lot of related memorabilia. There were representatives from many countries including the U.S.A.

If I remember right, the then famous American actress Viveca Lindfors was also there in the American contingent. Many had come to make themselves familiar with Brecht’s work. There were many receptions too, most evenings.

Helena Weigel hugged Manel warmly when we were given the promised visit. This time we met her in her flat and not in the office. She had invited her daughter Barbara Berg and her actor son-in-law Ekhard Schall too for the occasion. We were treated for coffee and special German fare of short eats.

Helena Weigel kept on saying that Manel was too young and too beautiful to be Grusche. In fact Manel did look very beautiful that winter season in East Berlin. “You must have taken your audiences by storm!” Said a delighted Helena Weigel.

She had taken a great liking to Manel and loaded her with all kinds of gifts. We had a very pleasant and long evening. Barbara Berg and Ekhard Schall invited us to visit their home too.

We were very lucky to see several of Brecht’s plays at the Ensenble Theatre. They included, Man is Man, Coreolan, Arturo Ui, and Galilio. It was a delight to watch Ekhard Schall impersonate Adolf Hitler in “Arturo Ui” I have never seen such an athletic and vibrant actor anywhere else.

It was biting cold and Manel’s sarees were not warm enough. Madame Huber, our hostess who was treating Manel like a queen, supplied her with warm under wear to protect her from the cold. She too had become very fond of my dear Manel and gave her many gifts. The Ministry of Culture gave us a slide projector as a special gift.

We met a Ceylonese student - Abey Gunapala - while we were in East Berlin. He was reading for a Doctorate in Fisheries at that time. He just called us and came to hotel Unter-den-Linden to see us. He took us to where he was staying – a German home and introduced us to the couple there.

Apparently Abey was very popular with his hosts and teachers. He invited us for a rice and curry lunch. Very soon it was apparent that he was no cook and Manel promptly took over.

Thought of the week

The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation will be celebrating its Silver Jubilee of 25 years of transmission this month. It would be a good time for Rupavahini itself and its viewers to assess its progress during this long period of this electronic media.

Having had the pleasure of being its earliest Deputy Director General in charge of General Programs, for five and a half years [from Feb. ‘83 to July ‘88] I believe I have a right to ask Rupavahini whether they have made themselves any better, or worse.

Mine was the time of Rupavahini’s very first Chariman and Director General M. J. Perera. It was a delight to work under such a wise and efficient man.

I must say we had very little political interference at that time. Perhaps politicians at that time had not realized its power and potential. J. R. Jayewardene was President and he had invited M. J. Perera personally to head the institution. Mr. Perera was in his seventies at that time but his age was no barrier to his efficiency or his far sightedness.

Rupavahini which started with a news readers’ Studio and just another small Studio, very soon obtained a gift of the present large Studio III - mainly due to the efforts of M. J. Perera. He had armed himself with a set of dedicated Producers, Asst. Directors, Program makers and a very vigilant News Room.

Men and women of the calibre of Richard Zoysa, Dhamma Jagoda, Rukmin Wijemanne, Shanthi Fonseka, Anoma Wattaladeniya Sumana Nellampitiya and a host of other equally talented people worked in various divisions to give the BEST to Rupavahini’s viewers.

Household names such as Jackson Anthony and Hema Nalin Karunaratne cut their first electronic teeth at Rupavahini. Unfortunately some of those pioneering seniors left Rupavahini untimely.

I bumped into Anoma Wattaladeniya the other day when I was there to appear in a Special Silver Jubilee program and asked her if it was true that she was going to retire from service.

She said yes and added shyly “I have asked for an early retirement.” I did not ask her why. Perhaps somebody should find out why such a senior hand wants to retire from Rupavahaini earlier than she has to!


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