Good show guys.
This is long overdue and too late to be of any use in filling seats, but I really liked the play Rag by Jehan Aloysius. We left the play after a standing ovation, thinking it was the best (albeit flawed) thing we’d seen on Sri Lankan stage. Spoke to some friends, however, and they hadn’t liked it at all. Strange. I thought it was really good.
I don’t much like musicals and when the scene opened on the bald Jehan Aloysius wearing a ridiculous wig and singing about dreams, I squirmed in my seat anticipating hours of awkward. After that, however, he lost the wig in a plot device and acquired a bunch of compelling characters going through alternate highs and lows such that by the end of the first act I was quite deeply thrilled and horrified.
My basic benchmark for stories, be they films or books or plays, is ‘do I care if the characters die’. Watching Prometheus, which is pretty enough, I still didn’t care if the characters died. I actually kinda wished them to. During Rag, by contrast, the character all revealed themselves with friendly humor, like people do, and then had tragedies befall them.
Too often in Sri Lankan theatre characters that undergo tragedy are portrayed as tragic characters. That is, they’re maudlin and depressed and foreshadowing that something bad is going to happen the whole time. That’s not, however, how humans are. Even during war or tragedy, people are – among their comrades – humorous and cling to basic normal behaviors, even if it’s all twinged with darkness.
In that sense the characters in Rag, and I’m forgetting names here, like Elvis, the gay (?) one and the miniskirt girl, were human and compelling and stick with me still. I remember them now because they weren’t just props for some greater message, they had lives and interests and they joked with us and played with us and ultimately cried with us. Like friends.
Honestly, the weakest character was probably Joe, the lead, as he was generally always doing the right thing, except for when he didn’t which could have been explored further. The first act, I think, was the finest bit of Sri Lankan theatre I’ve seen. It introduced characters, made you like them, and then really messed them up. The play within a play was riotous and the audience loved it.
The second act was good but still dragged on a bit. The choreography involved in the fight scenes was amazing and actually quite scary to watch (will they run into that swinging ladder thing?) but there were a lot of fight scenes with no clear resolution.
At the end our audience gave a well deserved standing ovation, but I still think the second bit could use some work to tie the characters and narrative togething into a satsifying conclusion, even if it is negative.
That said, I still think this was a remarkable and praiseworthy play. Making a musical is ambitious and prone to fail, but I do think Jehan and his composers and the excellent cast have pulled it off. Even the criticisms I’ve heard tend to be about higher levels of meaning (it treated the subject of ragging too lightly, etc), which means the play has already cleared the bar of the usual unbearable drivel.
I personally think that Rag went well beyond that and stands as a truly good play. The cast was incredible and made the audience feel for them (I almost forgot that Fussy Fatty or whatever her name was) and the writing took both the characters and audience on a serious of riotous highs and shocking lows that I do think did justice to both the fun of University life and the tragedy of how it’s damaged so many young people here. The play also has the first gay kiss I’ve seen on the Sri Lankan boards. I’d recommend seeing it, but it’s run is done. I do hope they keep working on this bit of theatre and run it again. It’s already very, very good. With a bit of tightening I think it can be great.