A young Briton, and a bunch of clowns

Recently, I saw a play in Sri Lanka done by the best English theatre group in Colombo, The Performing Arts Company. The play, 39 Steps, is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s eponymous film and has been running in Westend Broadway for decades. This is a drama that runs the gamut of tricks of comedy theatre. It traces the incredible adventures of a bored young Briton with a typical stiff upper lip, adorned by a pencil moustache. The hero, Richard Hanney, could not have asked for more fun and games in his bored existence.
Hanney decides to visit the theatre, where he meets Anabella and brings her back to his apartment. She tells him that she is bring spied upon. And here the craft of the theatre begins. When she mentions the two spies under the lamppost, we actually see them as they come on stage with the lamppost. Scaling through a window represented by a held up frame and carrying the frame with you, the moving door reveal another room, the female impersonator who in a quick change becomes a male, are some of the theatrical devices used.
The funniest scene takes place in a train which the hero enters in his bid to escape the charge of murder that is being levelled against him when Annabella’s dead body is discovered in his flat. Before dying, Annabella has given Hanney a map and told him about a foreign plot to spread chaos in the country. The code name is 39 Steps. The train, represented by four boxes, is presented entirely through the body movements of the four actors who mimic the swaying lurching motions of the train to perfection. The second beautiful woman the hero meets is the blonde Pamela, who betrays him to the police, not believing a word of his story about spies and danger to the country.
Escaping from the police, Hanney is in the Scottish Countryside where he strays into a peasant’s hut and is helped by his beautiful wife Margaret to escape. She is half in love with him and bids a tearful farewell. She gives him her husbands overcoat. His fleeing across the countryside is efficiently and effectively shown through shadow puppetry.
His adventures to the place where he has to go according to the map provided by Annabella lead him to a place where elections are on to pick a new mayor from amongst the old and decrepit. He is mistaken for the guest speaker but is arrested by Pamela’s identification. He does a con job with the police and discovers the den of the plotters with who the police are very friendly. He is shot and left for dead by the plotters. But the Bible in his overcoat pocket saves his life.
Finally, we are back in his apartment where he is with Pamela and we hear a baby crying in the background even as the two characters pour confetti over their embracing frame.
The two actors playing multiple characters, Sean Amarasekera and Arjuna Wignaraja, stole the limelight. Their comic timing is unbelievably perfect and they must be the fastest quick change artists on stage anywhere. In a flicker of an eye, they changed from policemen to the husband and wife owners of an hotel. By altering caps they played a plethora of charters at the railway station. Mohammed Adamaly was supremely confident as Hanney. The lone female actor, Ashini Fernando, played the three women characters with dramatic acuem. The director of the play is Nafeesa K.Amiruddin.
Quite another style of comedy was presented at the IIC by the Ceva Repertory company and Purple Mangoes under the direction and design by Sukhmani Kohli in her experimental play Romeo And Juliet And Seven Clowns. Believing in the clown as an essential part of the human soul, Sukhmani says that clowning is the search for the authenticity, both in the social and personal dimensions of our life. To discover this, it takes honesty.
It is like being in love, clowning requires acceptance. The clown makes itself vulnerable, attempts the impossible, lives passionately and love makes you do this also.
The attempt is also made to link this kind of love to sufism.
The clowns were all good and with the gamut of the concept. The clown playing Juliet, Abhimanyu, is specially gifted. He held centrestage with his subtle femininity. His dealings with the clowns who came to pay homage to her beauty and charm were summarily dismissed some with the scare of a gunshot.
The meeting of Romeo and Juliet and their true love makes them clowns and they are given the symbol of clownhood, the red nose. When Romeo begins to worry about other things than love and kills Tybalt after Capulets have killed Mercutio, Romeo looses his clown hood which is restored to him after a ritualistic cleansing bath given to him by the clowns. The only time the clowns speak is to relate the story.
They manage to communicate with their bodies and sounds they create. Juliet takes the sleeping medicine during the sangeet marking her wedding to the Duke. The end is as it is with Romeo coming and seeing Juliet dead, and then taking his own life. Juliet wakes up and finds the knife with which Romeo killed himself. As she holds the knife undecidedly, one of the clowns takes her hand and gestures her to kill herself. When asked why he did it, he replies, “This is the way Shakespeare wrote it.”
The Sufi element is introduced by the poetry and music of Bulleyshah. The song, Mainu nach ke yaarmilawan de, was beautifully rendered by clown Minka during the wedding of Romeo and Juliet.

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