We do Mother Courage
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.
In a way our oriental tradition of theatre does use a lot of mime in
the folk theatre such as âKolamâ, âGammaduâ, âNadagamâ, âBaliâ. âThovilâ
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 âmoodâ for
any kind of theatre activity - be it dance, drama, music or mime.
Often Chitraâ Vaji and Uppi were interested onlookers. In fact Vajira
helped me immensely with the famous âwar danceâ that Eilif performs on
stage, while singing âThe Song of the Fishwife and the Soldierâ
-[according to the original] My friend Santin, young, energetic and
handsome at that time, did a superb job of the 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
He was taken upstairs or to the garden and they taught him little
dances. Every now and then we would hear our Cecelin Ammeâs protests
such as âBe carefulâ, âHe will fallâ âDonât run so fastâ etc! The girls
had taught him a separate version of Eilifââs 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 Chitrasenaâs 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
âsubduedâ 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
Mother Courage, at that time  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 :- âI 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 âPutra Prashnayaâ 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 âromanticâ interest in the characters of Grushe and Simon
Sashawa. But âDiriya Mavaâ [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 âspoilsâ of that war.â
âThank Heavens, we in this blissful country have not yet experienced
a real war. Still it is a time we feel the âheatâ 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.â
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 âreligiousâ war as in
Mother Courage, in a strict sense, even religion plays a part in all
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 âTHEATREâ atmosphere. We, the
actors feel âat homeâ there. I would prefer it even to the Lionel Wendt
any day. [In any case the Lionel Wendt is too expensive for chaps like
We had a fairly good run with Diriya Mava. We also had fairly
favourable reviews in the papers. It was never âpopularâ like Hunuwataya
or Apata Puthe. But the serious theatre goer saw the âfuturisticâ aspect
of it and commented about it.
This was the âheaviestâ play that I undertook in my career as a
director on the Sinhala stage. To begin with I played a âheavyâ role in
the part of the cook - âPaippa Peterâ. 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 âquick changeâ 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
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 âNo, I donât know
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 :- âTHE
ACTORSâ 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.â
Thought of the week
Once again I am on the subject of Lesterâs book LESTER by LESTER. It
is such compulsive reading - delightful, full of âLesterismsâ! 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 âBambalawatta boysâ 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. â156 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 âsourceâ for bottled water!!!â
And again - âBut 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!â 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!
Lesterâs memory in recalling these incidents is phenomenal - God