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Reviewing the life of one of Sri Lanka’s last versatilists who played the roles of actress, playwright, directress and theatre educationist

People die and are mourned. Icons and heroes are mourned for eternity. Legacies however are celebrated. Somalatha Subasinghe was all of these. She left behind a legacy not just as a playwright and actress, but as a human being as well. That’s not rare I agree. But achieving “fame” as person and icon isn’t easy. Still.

She wasn’t just a playwright or actress of course. She wrote plays with purpose. She looked at what ailed this country of ours and turned it into prose and poetry (in the theatre it’s never too easy to tell the difference). Gamini Haththotuwegama, in one of his more perceptive articles, has this to say of her; that she was “the leading female versatilist in the theatre – actress, playwright, directress, and theatre educationist – in the post-colonial theatre.”

But versatilist in what? Haththotuwegama mentions the theatre. Does that deprive or rather deny her of any legacy in every other field she took part in? She acted, yes. But not all the time. Unlike other thespians and playwrights who took part in films and television serials – Trelicia Gunawardena being the best example – she kept herself out of “fame”. She did act, and wherever she was, we were grateful.

Not that there weren’t roles that jarred. In Mahagedara, she was scripted in as a ranting, lamenting mother. There were sequences that jolted in there. These compromised her. There was Viragaya, where she did a better and commendable job as Aravinda’s long-suffering, but still understanding mother. There was Siribo Aiya and Me Mage Sandai, separated not just by years or decades, but by issues confronted as well. And of course, there was Madol Duwa.

The bridge between theatre and cinema is hard to cross no matter what. Perhaps she understood this better than anyone else. Perhaps that is why she refrained from making a “presence” in film. She remained in the theatre and my guess is that the theatre remained there for her as well. As teacher and then as activist, she breathed new life to a “committed theatre”, free (though not entirely) of political color and certainly intelligent enough to do away with the black-and-white representations of life so endemic to the political plays of her time.

Was there any guiding principle she followed? In an interview with The Nation seven years ago, she mentioned her experience in Muhudu Puththu. The writer was Gunasena Galappaththi, who had visited New York and had taken in what was current in acting at the time, “The Method”. She remembered reading a book by Stanislavsky (the guru of what later became the Method), lent to her by Galappaththi himself. Method acting, which eluded most actresses here during her time, went to her at once. “Sara’s role was considered a revolution in Sri Lankan stage acting because I lived through the character. It was a fusion of our stylised theatre and the realistic theatre.”

I remember talking with Anoja Weerasinghe about the Method once. This is what she told me: “Actors here tend to think it began and ended with Stanislavsky. They refuse to learn or read because they think they know everything.” There have been few actors who took in Stanislavky’s gospel here. Fewer actresses. The Method isn’t just about being the character you portray. It’s also about living through that same character. I don’t know whether Subasinghe learned about or cared much for it before Muhudu Puththu, but seeing her in it today, I must confess: she went beyond just living through or being Sara. Commendably.

She will be remembered for other things as well. The Play-House Kotte. Vikurti (which can be considered as her best work). Her efforts at revitalising drama in our schools. And her workshops.

This isn’t all, one notes. She was more than just a playwright or actress. She was an individual. A close friend, who regrets not having met Subasinghe more often, spoke to me about her. She mentioned her character. She mentioned how tolerant she was. How understanding she was of other people and decisions even when it was popular to judge the former by the latter. Well, if works of art are anything to go by when judging their creators, my hunch is that Subasinghe and her career were indistinguishable in this regard. She wasn’t afraid of larger forces and remained sympathetic to lone voices. This she reflected in real life.

Post-colonial theatre began with stylisation and went into naturalism. Nowadays we have farce, satire, and the occasional adaptation. Protest plays aren’t a rarity these days, but they seem to be a dime a dozen. That’s symptomatic of a rut in our theatre, and that certainly is bad. Perhaps that is why Somalatha Subasinghe will be remembered. She was a “one of the last” as far as committed theatre goes, but that certainly doesn’t erase her memory automatically upon death. As teacher, actress, playwright, and activist, all those roles she got to play in life will come together some day. Posthumously. And when that happens, we will be grateful. Always.

Somalatha Subasinghe 2