Shehan Karunatilaka on the Celebrations

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Chinaman; the Legend of Pradeep Mathew author Shehan Karunatilaka is currently in Colombo, working on his second novel. We asked him to spend some time with us and share some impressions of his encounter with ‘Paraya’.

This play is dangerous. It has a dangerous-sounding name. It features violence, torture, masturbation and lots of spitting. It plays out on a broken terrace of a desecrated hotel, next to a seedy cinema that plays soft porn.

It also stars a pack of dangerous actors who throw themselves, sometimes quite literally, into walls, characters and each other. But worst of all, it contains dangerous ideas. Ideas about corruption and violence, governments and people. And about stages and audiences.

The title may scare you and well it should. Paraya isn’t a swear word, though many have been smacked as kids for saying it. It means other. Not ours. Not of us.

It’s a play that explores how society deals with this other-ness, a play that delivers action-packed science fiction and creates a world that’s sinister and compelling. It’s also a play you have to see three times.

The setting is a dystopia where a repressive state herds its citizenry into class-based zones and medicates them with a drug that induces patriotism and conformity. Paraya tells the story of what happens the day the drug stops working.

It’s the sort of Mind Adventure you’d expect from the folk that gave us Ubu Rex, which featured water fights with the audience, The Travelling Circus, performed on a circular stage built around a banyan tree and Chat Room where six actors spent an entire play not looking at each other.

Most of the alumni of Chat Room feature here, with one of them, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, taking the director’s chair. Arun has studied drama at Goldsmiths, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and appears to have picked up some dangerous ideas. The idea that drama can be devised. And that theatre can be immersive.

Our Mind Adventurers believe that it is possible to make great theatre without actually being inside of one. That instead of entering auditoriums, audiences should be invited to enter worlds.

So they enter the Rio Hotel in Slave Island, a storied piece of urban decay looted and abandoned in the fires of 1983, and they clear away the rubble and the dust and set up stages.

One is by an empty pool, another below a rickety staircase, a third in a dungeon with a wooden walkway, and a few more by broken walls. This venue looks like it houses vagrants, rodents and ghosts. Yet for the past months, it’s been home to actors torturing each other, crew members shifting space, and more symbolically, to a paraya dog who walked in from the streets and gave birth to a litter of six.

Now for the scary bit. The format. The plot doesn’t go from A to Z. Instead, a big opening scene splinters into interlaced subplots, which play out simultaneously across different stages. As an audience you get to choose the sequence in which you unlock the story and whose eyes you view it through.

The play is then repeated twice and you’re invited to explore other characters and story arcs. You can follow the oppressor and the oppressed, the torturer and the tortured. See through the eyes of the cynical and the brainwashed. Through the eyes of the Other.

Here are a few tips. Bring an umbrella and shoes for walking in. Don’t try and see everything at once, it’ll drive you mad. Choose one character and stick with them for that loop. Then pick another one. Expect to get lost and be confused. If you’re coming in groups, split up and compare notes after. Talk to the actors, touch the scenery, and stand wherever the hell you like. If you embrace the chaos, you might be able to make sense of it.

Paraya is ambitious, multi-layered, powerfully played and executed with flair. It’s also a lot of fun. See it if you’re partial to affecting drama and tough performances. See it if you enjoy visiting strange spaces. And see it especially if you’re unafraid of dangerous theatre.

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