I had been following Feroze Kamardeen’s Pusswedilla series of plays to record their run-ins with various types of censorship and finally had the opportunity to watch one of their performances, this time in musical form. Arsikland! The Musical had its run at the Lionel Wendt from March 30th to April 5th – a long, staggering schedule which is unusual for most English language productions that only draw in crowds to fill 2-3 nights. Yet Pusswedilla and his cronies have drawn such an audience that by the time I got tickets, most were sold out (in spite of the high prices!).
The comedic value of Arsikland! The Musical was a clear winner. The audience consistently responded to the many forms of humour used by the actors, whether slapstick, situational, lyrical, wordplay, character antics, or snarky asides. The delivery of the actors was almost always on the mark; a remarkable feat considering how young many of the actors were and the fact that several were replacing other better-known actors. Their characterizations of the politicians and the bevy of advisors was magnificent to watch, with the actors adding subtle details to their performances, like MP Panapananayake switching political parties without drawing attention to himself, or the unfaltering self-confidence of MP Pusswedilla in the midst of his advisors’ spotlighted buffoonery. The choice of music was enjoyable, taking mostly popular songs and replacing them with Arsiklandian (Arsikian?) lyrics. However, the overuse of ABBA songs did make it seem like a political Mamma Mia! rather than a well-varied musical. The drawback of musical theatre was articulation and dependence on equipment: while the songs promised laughs, technical imperfections robbed the audience of catching the lyrics in full. Perhaps a post-release series of music lyric videos is in order. The relationship of the orchestra with the actors was also a constant source of laughter, with actors breaking a wall to direct the music, musicians ‘misguided’ by their wordplay, and more mayhem. I’m not sure if a formal ‘choreographer’ was employed but the actors certainly performed some fine displays of drunken-uncle dancing with the occasional awkward attempts at pop dances like the shuffle and Fortnite floss. Any graceful physical coordination seemed effortlessly and hilariously minimized. All in all, the show was a brilliant night of entertainment, to the credit of cast, crew, and production team.
Praises aside, the musical brought certain things to the fore regarding the landscape of theatre and politics/governance in Sri Lanka worthy of reflection.
Firstly, the infrastructure of support for independent theatre. Arsikland! was one of many shows that stood out for its production value. However, the cost of tickets reflected the amount of funds necessary to have that level of stagecraft and technical value. You can tell how expensive a show is by looking at the age demographic of the audience: on the night I went (albeit a weekday), most attendees were easily over 40. Theatre is one of the fun outings that school-goers and university students often attend and their absence in the crowds was palpable. I am not singling out this show but rather pointing to the systemic problem that independent theatre has to make its own way financially and this affects the public’s access to art. This is especially relevant for political satires, which can be controversial. There are biases inherent in the way that state funding opportunities are distributed which calls for greater intervention from private actors, such as foundations, charities, corporate sponsors, international donors. As MP Wickramanikamsinghe called out during crisis: “Civil Society? Where are you?”
Secondly, the bilinguality of Arsikland! struck home to me as a much-needded positive example of language play and wordplay. English language theatre in Sri Lanka generally has a deplorable attitude towards Sri Lankan English and Sri Lankan accents. The ‘goday’ Sri Lankan accent and ‘broken English’ are used either as comic relief or to signal violence. In either variation, the common denominator is a snobbery towards Sri Lankan English that reeks of classism. If art is a mirror of society, then what does it say about the English theatre crowds that respond with belly laughs to such cheap, uninspired classist tropes? The writing in Arsikland, though not completely free from this critique, demonstrated a remarkably clever and often original use of language and bilinguality to elicit laughs. Wordplay ranged from clumsy mistranslations and bawdy bilingual jokes to artful spins on proverbs and poking fun at supercilious use of English in inappropriate contexts. The range of language play in the show was diverse and made fun of everything, with highbrow and lowbrow comedy delivered fluently in both languages. My only contention with this bilinguality is that the expectation of it ought to have been made clear to patrons in the show’s publicity, considering language accessibility is such a sensitive issue in Sri Lanka. For those who do not understand one or other of English or Sinhala, half of the play would easily have been missed, as well as many of the comedic points since they relied a fair bit on being bilingual. This said, Arsikland!‘s use of language really made it stand out and it would be interesting to see linguistic studies of the play!
Thirdly, the perennial question: where are the women? In both politics and political satire? None of the women (all two of them in the 20+ cast) had speaking roles, although they were visible at many points through the play. Even physically, at many points they were in a corner at the back, rather than playing any integral role. Sure, one can attribute this gap to the real-world lack of women in politics but I would like to believe the arts world holds itself up to a higher standard than this lazy excuse. Even during the crisis, women politicians were physically involved, with one member famously throwing a chair. In the broader picture, there was plenty of sharp, critical observation about the masculinized nature of politics that created this situation in the first place. Events amplifying young women politicians (aspiring and current) took place in the midst of the crisis to highlight the need for change in political culture. Politics aside, satirical theatre should even for art’s sake engage pro-actively with gender. There are ways to incorporate women and gendered critiques without mere tokenistic inclusion of women actors. For instance, there is much comedic value to be had from performances of hypermasculinity, which would also serve as incisive political commentary echoing concerns of the public at large.
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, is the fact that Arsikland!’s plotline did not have to be invented: as many observers remarked during the time of the constitutional crisis, “the satire writes itself”. Both the events unravelling during the crisis and the absurdities reported by media – everything was a tragicomic farce. To its credit, Arsikland! reminded the audience that it is our own political engagement that creates the situation we live in – hence reminding us of the power of our choices. But really, what choices do we have in such a systemically poisoned political sphere? Well done to Sri Lankan satirists who have been able to take our histories of political buffoonery and turn them into entertainment but this writer longs for the day when artists are actually challenged to be inventive with plotlines and make witty comedy out of an otherwise erudite political leadership. Until then, I hope our arts infrastructure and patrons are able to provide healthy support for independent artwork so that, to save ourselves from crying at our circumstances, we can laugh along with satires like Arsikland!