Prayas Theatre have built a reputation for putting on excellent productions of Indian plays, offering artists and audiences a connection with the countries they, or their forefathers, left behind. This too is the theme of The Mourning After, playing in the Basement Theatre this week, a new work by Ahi Karunaharan, a second generation New Zealand Sri Lankan.
Sri Lanka is seen through the eyes of a nice young kiwi, Shekar (played by Shaan Kesha), who, on his father’s death, returns to the village he left behind so that his spirit can return to his ancestors. The village, flattened by the tsunami of eight years prior, consists of only one house which is inhabited by an old man, Somu, played beautifully by Mustaq Missouri, and his nephew, Raju, played with a charming youthful naivety by Ravi Gurunathan.
Since the disaster there has been no rebuild, no electricity, and Somu believes the spirits are angry. Raju obligingly assists with the rituals to try and put things right, but it is not just the spirits who are cross. A voluble neighbour, played by a convincing Sudeepta Vyas, is kept away by an aggressive kabaragoya – a giant monitor lizard brought to life by Anjula Prakash – and an odd man with a limp (Pratekk Vadgaonkar) who fishes for memories and hangs around for reasons not explained until the very end. Somu’s one claim to fame was to play a minor role (‘seven extra scenes!’) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the long evenings are spent by Somu re-enacting the key scenes with a reluctant but biddable Raju.
So far, so promising; a stranger in an exotic land where the spirits are part of life, a terrible natural disaster and the aftermath of which audiences know little of, and a central character with charm and plenty of quirks. However, it is a tricky balance for a playwright to know how much to conceal and what to reveal throughout a play, and on this occasion, too much is hidden for too long. Nothing happens for a long spell, and then it is too little, too late. Also, the characters who make the choices that drive this story are mostly absent, which makes the work unnecessarily obscure. Somu and Raju are lovely characters but they don’t go on a journey, while others do, but are offstage. Show us more, tell the story.
There is an excellent creative team working together in this company: the lighting was beautiful; the set lovely, rich with colour and texture, and a sprinkling of sand on the floor - though I think a more flexible, imaginative approach may have been more successful in bringing out the undercurrents in the plot. However, if the characters’ onstage actions have no consequences, and if there is little at stake for the characters themselves, the audience could well find themselves becoming uninterested. There are plenty of opportunities to develop the stories within the play, and I hope that the author returns to it. As someone once said, good plays are not written, they are rewritten – this one is still a draft, and only a workshop or two away.