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We do Mother Courage

THEATRE: Manel is very clever at creating innovative moving steps for the stage. Even in Hunuwataya the steps that Grushe uses going to the Northern Mountains - in fact in all the acting the step that gives the illusion that Grushe actually moves was created by her.

She created a heavier and more forceful step for the scenes where Eilif and Swiss Cheese have to pull the cart with all the stuff that Mother Courage traded in stacked inside and hanging outside the cart.

The special cart was created by one of our golayas - the late Mervyn Jayatunge. [who later became a very popular villain of the Sinhala screen] He made it in such a way - in small pieces that could be put together in a few minutes - it was a marvel. So when Santin and Somasiri Alakaolanga as the two brothers were strapped to the pull-pole [ambarawa] of the cart and when they moved in one place with the step that Manel had created it gave the illusion that the cart was really moving.

folk theatre

In a way our oriental tradition of theatre does use a lot of mime in the folk theatre such as ‘Kolam’, ‘Gammadu’, ‘Nadagam’, ‘Bali’. ‘Thovil’ etc. We leave a lot to the imagination of the spectator and they readily join in the make believe world of our theatre. So that was an advantage for me, which I made full use of.

Rehearsals of Mother Courage [Diriya Mava] were held mostly at the Chitrasena Kalayatanaya at Kollupitiya. That place as everybody who knew the place will remember had the correct atmosphere and the ‘mood’ for any kind of theatre activity - be it dance, drama, music or mime.

Often Chitra’ Vaji and Uppi were interested onlookers. In fact Vajira helped me immensely with the famous ‘war dance’ that Eilif performs on stage, while singing ‘The Song of the Fishwife and the Soldier’ -[according to the original] My friend Santin, young, energetic and handsome at that time, did a superb job of the dance.

War Dance

Our little son, Sudaraka, who was barely two years at that time was taken with us for some of the rehearsals - together with his caretaker Cecelin Amme. The little boy became the property of Vajira, Uppi, Anji and the other women of the Chitrasena home, the moment we stepped in there.

He was taken upstairs or to the garden and they taught him little dances. Every now and then we would hear our Cecelin Amme’s protests such as “Be careful”, “He will fall” “Don’t run so fast” etc! The girls had taught him a separate version of Eilif’’s War Dance and our little fellow would falteringly perform it to anyone who cared to watch him, after coming home.

The regular classes at the Chitrasena School were conducted from around 3 p.m. till about 5.30 p.m. Invariably Manel and I arrived early - just to watch the magic of those classes.

It was an object lesson in timing, innovativeness and graceful movement. I must say I learnt a lot about such things by simply watching Chitra, Vaji, Uppi and others in action. We worked on a strict rehearsal schedule and the whole experience was invigorating - especially working from Chitrasena’s famed house of Dance.

Even the double casting worked much better than even I imagined. Manel brought her own distinctive personality into the character of Mother Courage. So did Somalatha - in a totally different way, rather ‘subdued’ I would say. Sweenie Subasinghe was a lovable, trusting and sweet Kattrin. Sunila Abeysekera was more crafty and she displayed a love-hate relationship with the mother.

Ophelia Gunasekera was a very seductive Yvette, while Mallika Boderagama was a different kettle of fish. Warakagoda and Fitzroy de Mel played the role of the Chaplain very differently. Waraks was a bit of a lecherous Chaplain while poor Fitzroy was a very obedient, but protesting Chaplain.

Mother Courage, at that time [1972] was a play that came rather ahead of its time - futuristic, almost prophetic I might add. In a note to the souvenir, I wrote something like this :- “I saw a Russian version of this play when I was in Moscow and I noted in my memory that this is a play that should be staged in our country too. It is very unlike Hunuwataye Kathawa. We could RELATE to that story. We had a similar story in the ‘Putra Prashnaya’ of the Ummagga Jataka story. It was a story about a rebellion. It was also a story about a mother and a child. It also had a ‘romantic’ interest in the characters of Grushe and Simon Sashawa. But ‘Diriya Mava’ [Mother Courage] is all about war - a long, meaningless, destructive war and Mother Courage in a way is a woman who makes her living on the ‘spoils’ of that war.”

Theatre atmosphere

“Thank Heavens, we in this blissful country have not yet experienced a real war. Still it is a time we feel the ‘heat’ of the war. It seems to get closer to us day by day. War is almost at our doorstep. Were we not singed by its heat from time to time.”

When I wrote these lines in 1972, I never imagined that a real war was so close at hand. It began exactly eleven years later and has escalated ever since. One does not see an end to it whatever claims we hear from both sides. In fact, although not a ‘religious’ war as in Mother Courage, in a strict sense, even religion plays a part in all these offensives.

We premiered Mother Courage on April 23, 24, 25 and 26 in 1972, as usual, at the Lumbini Theatre, Colombo. I always preferred the Lumbini Theatre to any other playhouse in Colombo.

Although it was sweaty, ill ventilated and hard on the players as well as the audience, it has a distinct “THEATRE’ atmosphere. We, the actors feel ‘at home’ there. I would prefer it even to the Lionel Wendt any day. [In any case the Lionel Wendt is too expensive for chaps like me.]

We had a fairly good run with Diriya Mava. We also had fairly favourable reviews in the papers. It was never ‘popular’ like Hunuwataya or Apata Puthe. But the serious theatre goer saw the ‘futuristic’ aspect of it and commented about it.

This was the ‘heaviest’ play that I undertook in my career as a director on the Sinhala stage. To begin with I played a ‘heavy’ role in the part of the cook - ‘Paippa Peter’. He is a lecherous character - quite different to my role as Azdak in Hunuwataya. Manel played a fine role opposite to the lecherous Peter.

She would jokingly say that that kind of thing will be allowed only on stage! The second reason why I consider Mother Courage heavy, are its considerable number of stage settings. - the cart, canons, guns, hand stretchers, and other paraphernalia. And they had to be changed quickly from scene to scene.

Our troupe had enough experience to handle such situations by now and I must say Mervyn Jayatunga as Stage Manager and Thomis Rupasinghe as his assistant did a splendid job.


Actually in ‘quick change’ situations the entire cast has to help. In our country we have only a Stage Manager and at most, two assistants. The actors also have to help and once they get into the swing of it, they join in gladly. The important thing is to have the right number of persons at the right place.

Too many persons could also hamper and mess up the process. The other important thing is hand props. They have to be at the right place at the right time and the user has to be responsible for them. In Mother Courage, we did not mime the props as we did sometimes in other plays.

If it was a bottle of brandy and Mother Courage had to pour a tot out of it to a thirsty soldier it was done exactly as in life. In any case you cant mime canon and guns and a stretcher in a play like Mother Courage.

We had some very memorable scenes in the play. Mother Courage haggling with Yvette for the price to release her son Swiss Cheese and finally losing him. The scene where his dead body is brought on a stretcher to be identified and Mother Courage saying “No, I don’t know him!”.

The return of Eilif from the battle front, disgraced and dejected to have a last meeting with his mother. Kattrins effort to save the sleeping village from enemy assault in the dead of the night by beating a drum perched on top of a roof and the most moving and throttling scene where Mother Courage sings a lullaby to her dead, dumb, daughter before she sets out all alone, pulling the cart by herself - still going behind the retreating armies.

As a gesture of admiration and respect we dedicated the first run of Mother Courage to that great German actress - Helena Weigel - wife of Bertolt Brecht. The dedication in our souvenir reads thus :- ‘THE ACTORS’ dedicate these first performances of MOTHER COURAGE to HELENA WEIGEL, wife of BERTOLT BRECHT,who immortalized the character of Mother Courage on the World Stage and who passed away on the 6th of May, 1970, in East Berlin.”

Thought of the week

Once again I am on the subject of Lester’s book LESTER by LESTER. It is such compulsive reading - delightful, full of ‘Lesterisms’! The chapter on the making of Sandeshaya provides some hilarious moments - hilarious now, in the reading.

But the poor chaps over there in an open camp at Belihuloya, nearly fifty years ago would have gone through hell. Lester says that he rounded up all the ‘Bambalawatta boys’ and took them to Belihuloya to play the roles of Portuguese soldiers, messengers and what not. He had even roped in a few roaming hippies who were abundant here at that time.

Let me quote Lester. “156 people were unbelievable on location which had no shelter. Nature provided the toilets. We would have polluted the streams for a hundred years because at the crack of dawn there were our boys in queues at the streams. God help, but these streams are today a very popular ‘source’ for bottled water!!!”

And again - “But the omnipresent and the biggest problem were the leeches. They were everywhere and sent everyone into hysterics. They crept up their legs and vanished God in Heaven knows where!” Kanthi Gunatunga had gone into tantrums when a leech went up her leg. Says Lester that he had never seen anyone in such a bout of hysterics!

Lester’s memory in recalling these incidents is phenomenal - God Bless him!

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