Saturday, 1 February 2014 00:00
How would you handle the pressure of finding yourself in a situation where your actions will influence the lives and deaths of people close to you who believe in and fight for the same cause as you do? There are two obvious choices in a situation such as this. You either save yourself, or sacrifice yourself for the greater good. But which choice would you make? That is the question that will be taken up on stage in Stage Light & Magic’s latest theatre production ‘Men Without Shadows’, Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, which will be on the boards from 7 to 9 February at the Lionel Wendt. Sashane Perera will be directing it and promises to take a more realistic approach to his production as opposed to the stylistic and heavily political productions of the Sinhala version of the play titled ‘Dhawala Beeshanaya’ which has been shown since the late 80s. The Weekend FT sat down with three of the main characters in the play to ask them each three questions on how they plan to tackle a very serious bit or theatre and of course the overall existentialist theme. Following are excerpts:By David EbertQ: Let’s talk about your characters.
Gehan De Chickera (Jean): Jean is the rebel leader. He is the leader of the captives who you see as the play starts. He accidentally stumbles across a patrol and is brought in but they don’t know that he is the rebel leader. So once he is brought in there is a major conflict because the captives are being tortured to get information as to where their leader is and here the leader is in the same cell with them. So for the captives they feel as if now they have something to hide from their interrogators and some of them think why don’t we give him up and then we can be free. That’s the general situation.
Jean’s character goes through several emotions of shame and guilt and the fact that these people are being tortured and he is not. Then the next is a sense of isolation and a sense of fear that if one of them cracks, he will be next. Added to all that is the fact that he is romantically involved with another of the captives, Lucy.
Gehan Blok (Sorbier): I play Sorbier, another of the captives. He’s the one with the most amount of self doubt because he’s never experienced torture and he’s scared if he’ll rat out or not. The problem is that he has nothing to rat out. He’s not hiding anything but they’ll definitely torture him and he knows that. He just wants to know what kind of pain it is. There are few more captives who have been through it and he keeps asking them what it’s like and how do they bear it. So that’s the character and he’s someone who doesn’t have much confidence in himself.
Bimsara Prema-rathne (Lucy): Lucy’s is the only female character in the play and the way I see it she’s very strong and if I’m to describe her in two words it’ll be strong and intense. She’s very loyal to the cause. Everyone else at some point or other in the play, they question why they’re there and what their choices are and sort of re-evaluating their situation as they go along. Whereas Lucy from start to end, she is also presented with choices as well and she makes them but she has a very clear focus, she knows she has to be loyal to the cause she wants her boyfriend Jean to be saved and all that for the cause and not for herself.
To the point where she doesn’t value her life or her brother’s, for her the cause is supreme and it is for other people but towards the end she says “I’m dried up and I don’t want to think about anyone else, I only want to focus on myself,” but by then she comes to a point where she thinks “I’ve done everything I can and I’m self sacrificing and endorse my brother being killed,” and all that. There’s nothing more she can do and the only thing she can do is to die and that is also for the cause. She’s very clear about it throughout the play and she is the one focal point which keeps on contrasting with very other character because she has this one focus and everyone else keeps changing their mind. As a character, she is every actor’s dream character because of that.
Q: What are your takes on existentialism?
Gehan De Chickera (Jean): To be very honest I have only a pretty surface understanding of existentialism; I haven’t read deeply into the subject but of course what Sashane has told us is that in his research and from what he found out is that ultimately what existentialism is about is about individuals taking responsibility for their own actions. I guess in a sense it goes counter to theories like Marxism where everything is blamed on materialism and people’s behaviour is a result of their environment. That’s basically what Marxism teaches but existentialism takes it a step further and tells you that you are responsible for your own actions. So that again constantly plays on my mind when I’m playing the character because at one point there are moments where Jean wonders and feels like giving himself up but they’re also sought of half hearted attempts I would say. How does Jean react in this situation, does he remain silent or protect himself or does he give himself up?
Gehan Blok (Sorbier): I believe existentialism is based on the situation you’re put in to, when you’re driven against the wall and the things you do for your existence. So in that sense the characters here are driven against the wall and they need to choose what it is they need to do next. Do I need to think of myself or do I think of the others, is it individualistic at the end of the day or is a team effort because all of them are fighting for a cause? But then slowly I think most of them realise that ok what’s the cause, it’s the French resistance and what they did until the British came and started helping them out, and they would just go and bomb a railway and think they did something. But until the British and US forces then only they started helping them out. Existentialism in that sense for Sorbier, the character it’s about his own existence and he wants to know what the hell will happen. I can’t tell you what happens in the end. Sorbier’s character wants to know who he is, is he a coward or is he a hero? He’s trying to find out who he is at this point.
"Stage Light & Magic’s latest theatre production ‘Men Without Shadows’, Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, which will be on the boards from 7 to 9 February at the Lionel Wendt. "
Bimsara Premar-athne (Lucy): As a philosophy it’s got me a bit baffled and I’m still sort of, through the characters we are playing, exploring it and I’ve not come across a play that goes this deep into the thinking and something that’s thought provoking and intense at the same time. I don’t know. It would be interesting in hindsight after we perform to see how the audience responds to see how they take it and what questions come up in their heads because I have questions about their characters and the choices they make. It’s a script that is new every time and each time you play it you think that this makes sense.
I think it’s also safe to expect some comparison and there will be some but I think throughout Sashane had been insistent that we are taking a completely different approach and I think especially in the Sinhala production’s first run in the late 80s, it was during the JVP troubles, so they tried and compare and contrast the Sri Lankan situation and insurrections that happened and also the conflict thereafter. We’re not taking that approach and he has been insistent that we get away from thinking about Sri Lanka and that we think about it in a universal question about how people make their choices and how people question themselves individually and as a community and so on but not think of Sri Lanka. That’s the really big difference.
Q: How difficult is it to get into and successfully play serious characters like this?
Gehan De Chickera (Jean): It’s difficult. When you get into any character it’s a long process. Initially it’s about what you see in other words the lines. The first step is you get an understanding of your character through the words they speak. The second step is you get an understanding of your character through the way the other characters react to you and what they say to you and the way they behave. The third part is the reading between the lines phase where you have your lines and you try to understand what is not being said or what he’s trying to say. If it is in sympathy like saying sorry, does he really mean what he’s saying or is he just say it. Then of course in the rehearsal process itself you start realising certain things about your character.
Gehan Blok (Sorbier): This is my 17th play since leaving school and most of the characters I have played have been confident roles such as villains etc. This one is a challenge because he is not a confident character; he has a lot of self doubt. In that sense it’s a physically challenging role for me in the sense I get tortured and I have show excruciating pain throughout the play and how you have the flow of that particular character. You can’t break character at any given time; you can’t switch on auto pilot and let it run because some characters in most plays if it is a straight forward character you can just run it and get away with it but in this you can’t do that. You have to get into it, feel the emotions and you have to be in character in order to convince the audience that this is a real character where they can draw parallels.
Bimsara Premar-athne (Lucy): It’s really challenging to play her because sometimes I think if these choices are presented to Bimsara how would I take it. When we were doing the character analysis there were points where I couldn’t understand why she was making those choices so we had to sort of break it down and analyse it different ways. It’s been tough trying to get into her mindset but I think we’ve sort of made it there now and we just need to polish it up. It’s challenging and I like it.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara