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Unmasking Red Masks

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In the heart of Sri Lanka’s vibrant arts scene, a captivating rendition of Sophocles’ timeless masterpiece, Oedipus, is making waves on the theatre stage. At the helm of this innovative production is the multi-talented Priyankara Ratnayake, a man who wears many hats – from a gifted actor and esteemed university professor to a visionary theatre director and a passionate political activist. Alongside a stellar cast that includes luminaries like Gihan Fernando, Umayangana Wickramasinghe, Anuradha Mallavaarachchi, and Samadhi Laksiri, Ratnayake has brought to life an exhilarating theatrical experience known as Red Masks, a contemporary interpretation of Siri Ediriweera’s translated script. Amid the post-pandemic era and a climate of social protest, Daily News sat down with Ratnayake to delve into the creative journey behind this production.

Q: What about the title of the play according to the current social context?

A: I suppose it has a political meaning and also an individual meaning. The inner life of a person, society, and nature are the main three things we encounter when dealing with the outside world. Nature and civilisation cannot be denied; doing so would result in a tangle. When it comes to directing a play, the goal is to provide knowledge as well as entertainment. It’s an aesthetic acknowledgement. This must include our educational habits.

Even adorers who we consider to be progressive have been consciously or unknowingly deprived of this circumstance. When Ediriweera Sarachchandra Maname was introduced to the local theatre, for instance, Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House was translated (1952) into Sinhala; at the time, this nation had produced more than a hundred English plays. Additionally, even though Sarachchandra was connected to Anton Chekhov, he makes no mention of any of Chekhov’s top five works. We set out on this journey with such a chasm. Therefore, it is our social responsibility as actors in today’s dramas to close this gap and spread knowledge’s delight.

In essence, the name Red Masks has a broad connotation. Red colour has three extremes. One is politics; the other is sex and violence. The Chicago labour conflict served as the inspiration for the red flag used in political confrontations. Red symbolises conflict, whether it is partisan or not. Numerous plays and sexually explicit characters like Lenchina employ the colour red. Red is also a representation of violence. All these three things are present in this play.

This play deals with a plague as its subject. The core of this narrative is how a country’s leader experiences a crisis while trying to find solutions to an epidemic scenario. Because of his own errors—due to ignorance and deliberate mistakes—the nation’s leader enters a crisis. He misunderstands, for instance, all the solutions to the epidemic issue. He doesn’t pay attention to anything said by his close friends, employees, country scholars, etc. He suffers because of his personal attitude and working on his own opinion. He suffers unintentionally as a result of his earlier errors. In the end, all that remains is an anarchic country without a leader.

The usage of the moniker Red Masks follows because of the need for a struggle that is frequently referred to due to the state of the nation. We cover our faces and put up with this culture. At one point in the play, Jocasta consciously decides to live with her son and fulfil her sexual urges. These masks are crimson when they are put on. The hue of our face would be crimson if the skin covering its surface were removed. However, some may not agree with this title and may feel something beyond the meaning aspect.

Q: You are putting on this play for the third time from the same script. Oedipus was known by that title earlier. If so, did it begin before the Covid-19 pandemic?

A: Yes, this title was also intended to be used at that time. Rehearsals began before the pandemic. In general, society experiences a crisis following an epidemic in every era of history. It is equivalent to both a family business and an entire political community. Additionally, new schools of thought emerged as a result of the epidemics. We as a culture were forced to burn a dead body in a matter of hours without giving it the appropriate cultural significance. The husband, wife, and kids also had the opportunity to live together for a year or two. People’s masks came off as a result. Due to this epidemic, the period with the highest rate of family issues emerged.

People react impulsively to the circumstances they are in at the time. You’ll comprehend that moment when you look back on it in the future. Oedipus needs to track down the murderer responsible for the nation’s sickness. He encounters someone who is not himself while seeking such. He becomes conscious of his search for himself. As if understanding the sorrow, he turns around and removes one of his organs from his body. At one point, he asserts that the mind, not the eye, is what matters. Even without eyes, he asks for light. It was determined that the title Red Masks works well as an additional incentive under these circumstances.

Q: You are tempted to put the prophet in a prominent role in this play. Do you believe that this society should seek help from fortune tellers?

A: This figure is a representation of a person who has studied philosophy. Such people do not exist in current society, and those that do are, in my opinion, inactive. As an illustration, while there are Buddhist monks, there aren’t any Buddhist philosophers. The value of a philosopher is not in keeping philosophy to oneself, but in applying it to advance society. Tiresias, the seer of the future in this play, is such a philosopher. In the play, the philosopher is faced with a problem between humanity and philosophy. Tiresias is fully aware that Oedipus is to blame. He is aware that sharing the secret will bring about disaster for Oedipus, hence he is unable to do so.

Q: In this production, you made a lot of efforts to inform the audience of the social impact that character individualisation has. Do you suggest that the philosophers in society be involved in such an intervention?

A: In particular, I have this idea regarding them; I’m offering them a suggestion. But this proposal is of a different kind. It was quite wise of philosophers to make the sacrifices they made for this societal intervention. Even while they are there to act for social change, doing so is not always simple. A similar situation occurs to Tiresias in this play. We only observe the societal involvement of authors like Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, or van Gogh, for instance.

What about their personal lives? They frequently lead disastrous personal lives. They intervened, and now they suffer from this irony. Due to their intrusions, I even had to deal with personal attacks. False interventionists do not experience these issues. By interfering with outside interests, they gain some profit. This is not what ordinary society sees.

This is what Tiresias suffers from. He has to deal with many things as a result of this philosophical intervention, including insults, being summoned to the king’s court, and being made fun of in public. A philosopher is also a common man. He experiences everything, too. We wonder if philosophers’ everyday lives are like this when we consider some of them. Then the general populace assaults it. Because average Joe doesn’t comprehend this.

For instance, we have to put up with such threats when working at the university. Social media has improved recently. Insulting is then relatively simple. Those closest to us in particular do this. Most people approach with hopes of receiving something in return. Let’s say I’m having a mango. Then, notwithstanding any cuts, it will be distributed to a select group of people. After their hopes are dashed, they take revenge. That is the society of the average Joe. Tiresias also experiences this. He once responds to Oedipus’s teasing by saying, “You will comprehend my understanding someday. But I won’t be able to come to you on that day.”

“Still the king, the master of all things?

No more: here your power ends.

None of your power follows you through life. …”

Creon tells Oedipus at one point, as though seeking retribution. That is the politician. These are the individuals who shout on political platforms. Tiresias, however, is not humiliated in that way. Because philosophers don’t respond to others or insult others. Even in anguish, he has a pitiful gaze for such people. This is how a politician and an artist differ from one another. The artist doesn’t explicitly insult anyone; instead, he responds with art. Although the individual is important to the politician, society is important to an artist. This nation’s ruler harbours animosity against certain political parties. Artists, though, are not as irate with anyone. Tiresias is the artist, while Creon is the statesman. The tragedy that a real philosopher must deal with is this.


Oedipus Rex – Theatrical Masterpiece!
Presented by the Department of Drama, Cinema and Television at the University of Kelaniya, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex comes to life like never before.
Date: October 6
Showtimes: 3:30 and 7 pm
Venue: Elphinstone Theatre
For inquiries and more information: Contact Priyankara at 0714311312 Reach out to Sanjeewa at 0702179190

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