POIGNANT TIMING FOR A STORY OF DAMAGE AND HEALING
The Mourning After
Written and performed by Ahi Karunaharan
Directed by Miria George
at THE BOX, Buick St, Petone, Wellington
From 30 Mar 2011 to 2 Apr 2011
Reviewed by John Smythe, 31 Mar 2011
Sri Lankan-born playwright-performer Ahi Karunaharan plays out his imagined multi-charactered story of return to his “tear drop of an island” on a black rostrum stage, using nothing but a woven palm-leaf fan as a prop and a line of white sand as the setting.
Directed by Miria George, with an evocative sound design by Karnan Saba and a sensitive lighting design by Laurie Dean, Shekar's return to the south eastern village that his late father once called ‘home' draws us into to this place and time at is own gentle pace. I sense the support of dramaturge Hone Kouka in the confidence with which the story's buried truths are slowly revealed, like an archaeologist sift through ruins, or the foreshore and seabed in a receding tide.
Save for Uncle Somu's house, the village is now a desolate wasteland, devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. (It is entirely coincidental that The Mourning After – which has evolved over time through the Writers' Block initiative, led by Kouka, and a Tawata Productions development workshop last year – premiered within three weeks of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster.)
Taking a break from his teriary studies, Shekar's mission is to scatter his father's ashes, according to his dying wish, and to identify the woman in the photo that his father was clutching. But first he has to get past the Kabarakoya – a giant ‘water monitor' lizard that guards the gates – or rather get Raju, the housekeeper and general dogsbody, to call it off.
Superstitious Raju – a simple soul who became an audience favourite on opening night – keeps calling the crows, believing that if they're not offered food before the mortals eat, the ghosts of dead ancestors will haunt them. But no crow has been heard or seen since the devastation.
It turns out the formidable Aunty Saroja – a malevolent crone referred to as “the lady with the black tongue” – is seeking forgiveness for past misdemeanours relating to Shekar's father and a woman called Mallikar, who has shut herself in her room to hide her shame at having been promised then abandoned …
Then there is Bala, who spends his waking hours digging in the sand for the treasures he had amassed to prove himself worthy of his beloved …
These are the cultural values and inherited concerns Shekar finds himself amid. But the modern world once touched these lives too. Part of Sri Lanka was used as a make-believe India by Stephen Spielberg for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the imperious Uncle Somu was a featured extra. But now there is no electricity, let alone a DVD player with which to relive those glory days …
Karunaharan delineates the characters with minimalist skill as he shares Shekar's journey with us, transporting us in just one hour to this place of damaged souls and back. As an evocation of the healing that follows mourning, it works a treat. And being in the middle of it, as we are with Christchurch and Japan, the timing is poignant.
The Box in Buick Street Petone (just up from the bore water station) is becoming a valued venue for new work, by the way. Long may it continue.
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See also reviews by:
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);